Tony Stewart Quietly Consistent for Nearly a Year ATLANTA (July 27, 2004) - Tony Stewart is on a roll. With three straight top-five finishes that included a win July 11 at Chicagoland Speedway, the driver of the ...
Quietly Consistent for Nearly a Year
ATLANTA (July 27, 2004) - Tony Stewart is on a roll. With three straight top-five finishes that included a win July 11 at Chicagoland Speedway, the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing is settling nicely into his traditional second-half surge.
Round number 20 on the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule is Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, a track where Stewart has won before while collecting a pole and seven other top-10s in 11 career starts.
He was set to add another top-10 finish when the series visited the 2.5-mile triangle back in June before transmission trouble forced him to the garage area. But in one of the more impressive displays of perseverance and mechanical fortitude, the #20 team changed the transmission and put Stewart back into the race. While he finished six laps down in 27th for his worst finish thus far in 2004, it certainly beat recording a DNF (Did Not Finish) and the accompanying low point tally.
But that's nothing new to the Home Depot Racing Team, as they've been running at the finish for 35 consecutive races with their last DNF being last July at Pocono.
There, Stewart appeared ready to join his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, along with Bill Elliott, Bobby Allison and the late Tim Richmond, as the only drivers to sweep both Pocono races in a single season. Stewart had won the June race and was leading the July race until his engine expired on lap 154. The early exit relegated Stewart to a 37th place finish. But since then Stewart's worst finish has been 27th. As mentioned earlier, he finished 27th in his June trip to Pocono, but his only other 27th place result was at last year's fall Richmond race.
Stewart's win at Chicagoland seemed to verify the old racing adage of, "To finish first, you must first finish." And with his string of top-fives, Stewart appears poised for more success at Pocono and beyond.
Pocono seems to be a good indicator of how a team will perform at Indianapolis, which directly follows this weekend's race. Is that true?
"It's harder to pass at the Brickyard than it is at Pocono. There's a fair amount of room going into (turn) one at Pocono, and you can run two-wide there and you can go two-wide in (turn) three at the beginning of a run. But it's pretty tough to run two-wide through the corners at Indy. Still, a good run at Pocono shows your flat-track program is pretty good. But at the same time, it's no guarantee that you're going to run well at the Brickyard."
Well before you came to Pocono as a rookie in 1999, you raced at Pocono in a go-kart as a youth. What was that like?
"Years and years and years ago, 1986 I think, I ran the WKA (World Karting Association) Enduro Series. When we ran Pocono, we actually ran the majority of the big track backward. You went out on the front straightaway backward and then you turned into the road course in the infield and came back out on the speedway past the part where you'd run with the Nextel Cup car, but you'd turn back on the track and turn to the right. You'd go around the tunnel turn and then come back around. It was pretty neat, pretty different. You really didn't get a perspective of what it was like in a stock car by any means because you were going in the wrong direction in a go-kart that only went 105 mph. It was definitely a different perspective than what I experience there now."
When you won last year's June Pocono race, how much adjusting did you have to do to the chassis during the race?
"We were pretty tight at the beginning of the race, but we wanted it that way to make sure we were on the safe side because the track was so green. As the race went on, we just kept freeing the car up. It was real tight on entry and we kept making some good changes and the car kept responding to it. We just kept sneaking up on it, even though we never got all the way there. But the guys on the pit crew got us track position and we were able to run our pace, not everybody else's pace."
With track position being so critical, how important was your pit crew in helping you earn your first win at Pocono?
"It won us the race. The crew won the race - not me. I just did my part by driving. They got me in position on that stop toward the end where we went back to green. I was able to run my pace, and not abuse the front tires chasing down the leader. I could run the way I wanted to run and lift the way I wanted to lift and do everything my way instead of trying to push hard and run those guys down. When it came time to come in and make our green-flag stop for fuel, they had another great pit stop. We got out ahead of Sterling (Marlin) and Mark (Martin), and the biggest thing was just getting right back into my rhythm. They had two really good stops right there at the end of the race that put us in victory lane."
How hard is Pocono on engines?
"Pocono is tough on engines because you're in the gas so long and you're shifting and you're up in that rpm range for a very, very long time. It's definitely a place that makes the engine builders nervous."
Explain a lap around Pocono.
"Turn one is probably the easiest of the three, but you've got the challenge of having to downshift in the middle of the corner. You go down the backstretch and into the tunnel turn and it's basically one lane. It's flat and very line-sensitive. You've got to make sure you're right on your marks every lap when you go through there. Then you've got a short chute into turn three. It's a big, long corner and it too is very line-sensitive. With it being line-sensitive and the fact that we've got a straightaway that's three-quarters of a mile long after that, it's very important that you get through the last corner well. You need to come off the corner quickly so that you're not bogged down when you start down that long straightaway. Each corner has its challenges, and each one tends to present a different set of circumstances with each lap you make."
Because no corner at Pocono is alike, do you have to give up handling in one corner to make yourself better in another?
"With Pocono's three corners, you're normally able to get two out of three, and the third one you struggle with a little bit. But we're starting to get to where we're right in all three corners now. With Pocono being as big as it is, you just have to really work hard and know how much momentum plays a role on that race track. If you're a little bit off, you're a bunch off. If there's a guy who can get all three of those corners right, then that's the guy who's going to win the race.
"It's a three-turn road course. You're shifting like you do on a road course and it has three unique corners. For the most part, it doesn't have the big banked corners and two and three grooves like you typically see. The only turn that has that is turn one at the end of the straightaway.
"It just makes you focus and concentrate really hard. The tunnel turn is line-sensitive. You can't go down in there and miss your marks and expect to run a good corner through there. It's a very technical track. It makes you really focus on all three corners, and the hardest thing is getting the car to drive well in all three. That's the challenge. It seems like I always get two of the three fairly easily, but it seems like the third corner is the one I have trouble with. But in all reality, it doesn't matter which corner it is on the race track, it just seems like on every lap you're off on one of the three corners at least a little bit. That's the challenging part about Pocono."
Following Saturday's final practice session at Pocono, you'll hop on a plane bound for Akron, Ohio, to attend the 67th running of the All-American Soap Box Derby, where Home Depot is the title sponsor. As someone who began racing go-karts at age seven, do you feel that you relate well to the kids competing at the Soap Box Derby?
"Soap Box racing is all about the kids. I've been in their shoes and know how hard it is as a young person to channel your time and effort into becoming the best. Being in Akron is the payoff for that hard work, and it's an honor to share in their excitement."