TONY STEWART All Systems Go for Pocono ATLANTA (June 7, 2006) - Rarely do you hear drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series say, "Man, I can't wait to get to Pocono." That's because Pocono (Pa.) Raceway is a race track designed by committee -...
All Systems Go for Pocono
ATLANTA (June 7, 2006) - Rarely do you hear drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series say, "Man, I can't wait to get to Pocono."
That's because Pocono (Pa.) Raceway is a race track designed by committee - part drag strip, part high-banked oval, part flat track. And if you're good in one section of the race track, you're typically struggling in another.
The best way to describe Pocono's 2.5-mile layout is that of a triangle, where none of its three corners are alike. It begins with an enormously long front straightaway that dumps into a tight, semi-banked corner. Upon leaving turn one and shooting down another long straightaway, drivers are subjected to the tunnel turn - a bumpy and very narrow half-corner. If unscathed, drivers exit the tunnel turn and speed down a third straightaway, only to negotiate another tight corner. Turn three is the final turn of the track, and with little banking, drivers must feather the throttle to get the balance and grip they need to race down that long front straightaway all over again.
The one driver who relishes the opportunity Pocono presents is Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Still nursing a fractured right scapula sustained in an accident at Charlotte (N.C.) two weeks ago, Pocono's long straightaways provide Stewart as much comfort as can be found in a 3,400-pound race car. There are no G-forces to contend with or much turning of the steering wheel. Just point the car straight and mash the gas, something mastered by Stewart long ago, as his 25 career Nextel Cup victories and two series championships prove.
And while Stewart will be far from comfortable at Pocono, it will seem like a day at the spa compared to what he experienced for 38 laps last Sunday at Dover (Del.).
Dover is the antithesis of Pocono. Dubbed the "Monster Mile," Dover is a 1-mile, high-banked horror show for someone battling injury and an ill-handling race car. The G-forces associated with turning 150 mph laps around corners with 24 degrees of banking are dizzying. The seams of its concrete surface are rattling. Impacts within its tight confines are jarring.
All of that played into the decision for Stewart to give up his seat to veteran NASCAR driver Ricky Rudd upon the race's first caution. Rudd, owner of 55 Nextel Cup starts at Dover - four of which ended in victory - drove the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet to a respectable 25th place finish that kept Stewart within the top-five in points.
But after another week of rest and seeing someone else drive his signature orange and black Chevrolet, Stewart is all in at Pocono. The reigning series champion plans to participate fully in practice, qualifying and the race.
Two-hundred laps around Pocono makes for a long day, but it's a day Stewart has been waiting for ever since lap 39 at Dover.
Since you're still nursing a fractured right scapula, what are your expectations for Pocono?
"I plan to make it through the whole weekend. Every day my muscles feel like they're getting stronger, and I don't think it's a bone issue as much as it's a muscle issue.
"I got fitted for a new ButlerBuilt seat and we'll have it in the car for this weekend. We think it's a better design - a newer version of what I had been running. It was time to put something new in there. Brian Butler and his staff did an awesome job of accommodating me and getting a seat pumped out in a short amount of time so we would have it for Pocono, so we really appreciate their effort. I fully believe that with the new seat and another week of rest that we'll be ready to go."
What's different about your new seat design?
"The dimensions are different. The back of the seat is a little wider, up where my shoulders are. It's about an inch wider, total."
Will you have a relief driver on standby?
"We'll make that decision closer to the end of the week. But I really don't anticipate needing a relief driver. I appreciate what Ricky (Rudd) did for us last week at Dover, but he's on vacation with his family this week and I want him to enjoy his vacation. I'm confident that by the end of the week I'll be strong enough to go do the whole race at Pocono by myself."
From a physical standpoint, why is Pocono easier to drive than Dover?
"You spend approximately two-thirds of your lap at Dover in the corners, where at Pocono you spend about 70 percent of your time on the straightaways. It's got a lot of straightaways and three very short corners, so turning the wheel doesn't take long."
Have you had to make any adjustments in how you hold the steering wheel? Are you using more of your left arm?
"I'm left-handed anyway, so I've always pulled on the wheel with my left hand. Where all the pain comes from is when we're loose and I have to back-steer the car. It's still going to be uncomfortable, for sure. But as I get more strength back in my right arm, then the easier it'll be to back-steer the car. All in all, I think we'll be fine."
From a physical standpoint, what will be your biggest challenge at Pocono?
"The three corners are pretty unique and the tunnel turn was pretty bumpy the last time we were there. Hopefully that won't hurt too much, but even if it does, it'll still be a lot easier than having to race at Dover for 400 laps."
From a racing standpoint, what's your biggest challenge at Pocono?
"All three corners are different - that's the most challenging part. It seems like you can always get your car good in two of the three corners, but the guys who are contending for the win are the guys who can get their car good for all three corners. That's a very hard thing to do - get you car good through all three sections of the race track. It's a little different now because we don't go through transmission and gear changes like we have in the past where we tried different combinations to find more speed. With the gears NASCAR says you can run, it's made it a totally different style of racing compared to what we've had in year's past at Pocono. It's evened things out for everyone."
Since Pocono has three distinct corners, where do you start with your race setup?
"We always go out and figure where I feel like I'm struggling the most, because that's where I feel like I'm going to make up the most time. It seems like if we can get our car to go through the tunnel turn well, then we're normally able to get The Home Depot Chevrolet to go through the rest of the race track well. The tunnel turn seems to be our toughest turn on the race track. Getting through turn two and the last corner of the race track that's flat, long and sweeping - those seem to be the toughest two corners to get through. And 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."
What's the most treacherous part of Pocono's layout?
"Probably the tunnel turn. Everybody realizes how fast they're going into (turn) one. And they know that if they wreck they're going to wreck hard. The tunnel turn is a little sneaky. It's a tight fit through there, and you don't really know how fast you're going until something bad happens."
Coming down that front straightaway, the racing can get pretty wide. When and where do you have to get back in line to make it into that first corner?
"It just kind of funnels itself back into line before we get into (turn) one. Everybody tries to get back on the high side to make their entry into the corner, but sometimes it does get a little tight in there. But most times, you just do what you have to do to get The Home Depot Chevrolet back in line."
If you're down on horsepower at Pocono, are you pretty much out of contention?
"Yeah. If you're down on power at Pocono, you're a mid-pack car at best. You need power to go down that front straightaway, and if you don't have it, you're done."
Explain a lap around Pocono.
"Turn one is probably the easiest of the three - you drive it in kind of deep and then try to float the car through 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."
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."