Pocono: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Pulling for a Pole at Pocono ATLANTA (June 3, 2008) -- Tony Stewart scored his third career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in July 2000. He now has 10 poles to his resume, and he'd like to add an 11th...

TONY STEWART
Pulling for a Pole at Pocono

ATLANTA (June 3, 2008) -- Tony Stewart scored his third career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in July 2000. He now has 10 poles to his resume, and he'd like to add an 11th career pole this Friday during qualifying for the Pocono 500.

Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team have never placed much emphasis on qualifying. They prefer to use the first practice session of a race weekend to work on race setup. Then, when their Home Depot Toyota is to their liking, they'll make a mock qualifying run just to see how they might stack up once qualifying gets underway for real.

But this weekend's race at the 2.5-mile triangle has Stewart and Co. thinking differently, especially after having tested at the spacious track May 27-28.

Even though the test was cut short a half-day by rain, it provided enough track time for Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli to know that starting Sunday's Pocono 500 up front gives them a much better shot at finishing up front. That's because the current-generation race car, combined with the lack of banking available at Pocono, makes for very aero-dependant racing conditions.

What does that mean, exactly? It means that the current generation race car goes faster and handles better when it's in clean air and not stuck behind a line of race cars. When that occurs, the car is in turbulent or "dirty" air. Less air flowing over one's race car makes for an ill-handling and slower race car, hence the need to start up front to stay up front.

A pole would be nice, for the last time Stewart set fast time in Sprint Cup qualifying was 90 races ago at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in October 2005. And while poles have never paid any purse money or counted for any points toward the championship, a pole at Pocono may consequently pay off with money and a hefty point tally if it leads to a win.

Winning is what pulls at Stewart to get all that he can out of his Home Depot Toyota, which means come Friday at Pocono, he'll be pulling for a pole.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:

Even though you haven't won yet this year in Sprint Cup, you've run well and you're in the top-12 in points. Are you okay with the way your season is going, despite the fact you haven't notched your first win of the year?

"I feel good about where we are so far this year. What I'm excited about is that we've actually had opportunities to win a lot of races so far and been in position to win. Historically, everything up to this point in the season is normally gravy. It isn't until it really starts getting warm that we really get going. All the opportunities that we've had to this point are a sign that we're actually ahead of schedule."

When you tested at Pocono May 27-28, it appeared that racing in clean air would be of paramount importance. Why?

"It just seems like these cars are more aero-dependent than what we've had in the past. Pocono is just one of those places that's not high-banked, so it doesn't have a lot of different grooves. Anytime you have one groove in one particular corner, it just makes it where you're stuck following guys. And anytime you're following, you can't move around on the race track, and that makes it hard to pass. With the new car and everybody still trying to figure out what we have to do to make these things great, that's what's going to make it worse than normal. We just can't get around each other."

Since being in clean air will be so important, will you put a higher emphasis on qualifying at Pocono?

"I think we were fairly happy with what we did at the test, and that gives us the flexibility to work on qualifying during that first practice on Friday. If we were out to lunch, then we wouldn't have the flexibility to do that. But with the fact that our test went fairly well, we're going to take the opportunity that Friday's practice gives us to try to get track position at the beginning of the race with a good qualifying run. Qualifying is going to be more important now than ever."

As a driver, is there anything you do differently when you make a mock qualifying run compared to when you make a race run?

"The car just goes faster. You set it up to go fast for one lap, not 40 laps. You can use all the good out of it in one lap versus trying to spread it out over 40 laps."

Has the current-generation race car altered the line you run around Pocono?

"They repaved one strip of the asphalt in (turns) three and four and I think that's where everybody's going to be, unfortunately. You might see guys be able to pull slide jobs off the corner, but that's going to be quite a bit different because everybody's going to be hunting for one lane that's two-thirds of the way up the race track, which is uncommon for us to all run up there. But that's where everybody ended up during the test. Anytime you repave a spot on the race track, it becomes the fast spot. With the fact that it was one lane kind of makes it odd. It'll be interesting to see what happens with it being that far up the race track, as far as whether guys at the beginning of a run will try to go low and see if they can make it work or not."

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."

From a driver's 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 your car good through all three sections of the race track."

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 Toyota 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."

Greg Zipadelli, crew chief of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:

You tested at Pocono May 27-28. How did it go, especially considering you were there for the first time with the current-generation car?

"It was okay. We had two cars there and both of them drove pretty well with different characteristics, but they were both decent as far as speed goes. We made some long runs the second day. The first day was shortened up quite a bit due to rain, so we really didn't get a lot done. Overall, it was okay. We found that getting in clean air is going to be absolutely ridiculously important. The top-five and top-10 are just going to run away. But that's just the characteristics of that race track."

Since being in clean air will be so important, will you put a higher emphasis on qualifying?

"Yeah, for the first time in about five years we're going to show up in qualifying trim as long as the weather looks good. If the weather looks even questionable we'll make at least one race run in that first practice on Friday, because when rain sets in there, it can be there for a couple of days. We've seen that before. Right now, we're planning on going there in qualifying trim and making four or five qualifying runs to see where we're at."

What is making this current-generation car so aero-dependant at Pocono?

"I think it's just the characteristic of the race track. There's no banking. In turns one and two there is some banking and you see people running two lanes -- some high, some down on the bottom and you see them pass off of turn two. The tunnel turn is fast through the center of the corner and there's not a lot of banking. Same thing with turn three -- there's nothing to hold the cars down on the track. And the track is fast. It's a real fast place. You don't slow down a lot."

Pocono has been mentioned as a track that could be purchased and/or lose its Sprint Cup races. What do you think of that?

"I'm not a big fan of getting rid of race tracks. I do think race tracks need to be proactive in making improvements, be it with SAFER Barriers, garages that are safe to get in and out of, pit roads that are safer to get on and off or whatever they can do to make improvements. You look at the smallest track we go to in Martinsville (Va.) and see what they've done over the last few years of just doing what they could to make it a better place to race. Every track needs to do whatever they can to make themselves better and safer, with safety being the biggest thing.

"I like going to Pocono. I grew up in that area. I worked on Modifieds and raced there 20-25 years ago. So to me, going to Pocono is kind of like going to Loudon (N.H.). They're a couple of the coolest race tracks we go to. They have their own personality and their own characteristics. Every corner is different at Pocono, and that's what makes it challenging. You've got to have a driver that's up to the challenge, a crew that's willing to be open-minded and think about things a little differently than you do at other places, and you need good pit stops. To me, Pocono is a fun race track. It's kind of like a road course. I like those kinds of challenges more than those cookie-cutter mile-and-a-halves that we seem to race everywhere."

Talk about your time working on Modifieds and racing at Pocono.

"There was a three-quarter mile oval inside the track. For us at that time, going there and going to Martinsville -- those were really big and prestigious races for the Modified Tour. It was fun. I had the opportunity to win there with Brett Bodine in 1985. At Pocono and Oswego (N.Y.) you used to get beer for leading laps, and we got a lot of beer. You'd get a case of beer for leading laps, and those were big races, so you could leave there with 40, 50 or 100 cases of beer to put on your trailer. At that time, we didn't have any money. That was absolutely huge. It wasn't the beer we used to drink, but we could take it to a place and we'd give him two cases and he'd give us back what we actually drank. It's little things like that you remember from back in the day. It was cool, and every time you go back to places like that, it's special. It's where I came from. To be there that long ago and to be back there racing again in the Sprint Cup Series and having been able to win there in Modifieds and again in Sprint Cup is pretty cool."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Brett Bodine , Tony Stewart