Tony Stewart: Real racing at the Rock ATLANTA (Feb. 18, 2003) - In the 10 days spent practicing, qualifying and racing at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway for the season-opening Daytona 500, more than one driver muttered the phrase, "This...
Real racing at the Rock
ATLANTA (Feb. 18, 2003) - In the 10 days spent practicing, qualifying and racing at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway for the season-opening Daytona 500, more than one driver muttered the phrase, "This ain't racin'."
The carburetor restrictor plates used at Daytona and its sister track - Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway - choke the amount of horsepower available to the driver, leading to huge, multi-car packs where the luck of the draft will sometimes trump driver talent.
A return to "real racing" greets NASCAR Winston Cup Series drivers this weekend, as round two of the 36-race schedule rolls into North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. There will be no carburetor restrictor plates. No drafting. No 10-day schedule of events.
It will be a typical Winston Cup weekend, with qualifying on Friday, practice on Saturday and racing on Sunday. And perhaps the most important element to the weekend will be a shift in focus from aerodynamics and creative engineering to mechanical know-how and driver feel.
The gritty, 1.017-mile oval chews up tires and puts a premium on handling. All the horsepower in the world is worthless if you can't put it to the pavement, and Rockingham provides a daunting challenge for crews looking to transfer every bit of their engine's power to the rear wheels of their race car. Proper balance of a car's handling characteristics, to where it's neither too tight nor too loose, is the key to success at Rockingham.
Why do you look forward to Rockingham so much after racing at Daytona?
"What you do next weekend at Rockingham is solely based on what you and your team can do with your race car, not what drafting line you're in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move. Once we get away from Daytona everything kind of settles into a groove. We're back in the weekly grind. I enjoy going to Rockingham because I really feel that's where our season starts. That's a track where you don't really worry about what everybody else's car is doing, you worry about what your car is doing. You're racing the race track. You're not racing everybody else. It's a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things. Once you leave Rockingham, you feel like the season has officially started."
How much of a relief is to get back to a normal three-day race weekend?
"I think everybody's pretty worn out after being in Daytona for so long. Rockingham means a normal routine, and a chance for the crew guys to get back to their families for a couple of days before heading to another race track."
Explain a lap around Rockingham.
"The two ends of the track are pretty different from one another. They look, geometrically, about the same. The entry into (turn) one is a little bit wide, and it gets tight off of (turn) two. But it's just the opposite in (turns) three and four. Once you get into three you can pretty much get in the gas pretty hard, especially if you're on fresh tires. Then you can run through four really hard. Compare that to (turns) one and two, where you can run in there a little harder, but it's a little trickier coming off of two. It's definitely got its own unique set of challenges, but that's what makes Rockingham a fun race track."
What does it take to get around Rockingham quickly?
"Making sure the car has a really good balance to where you're not having to use the tires up by leaning on them hard to go fast. If you can get the car driving well enough that you can run a good pace without pushing the car, then normally halfway through a run you're really good and you're really starting to pull away from guys whose cars aren't quite as balanced as yours. They're having to use up their tires a little more than you."
What do you do if your car isn't balanced?
"You just make sure you don't lean on your tires any more than you have to. If you have to run hard to keep the pace, then you have to run hard. But you just try to be as easy on them as you can, maybe be smoother on the race track by finding a line that's a little less abrasive by changing the balance of the car. There are some spots on the track that'll make your car freer and some that'll make it tighter. Depending on what your car's balance is doing, you need to move around on the race track to help it out."
Will Rockingham be the first true test of the Chevrolet's aerodynamic package in terms of overall balance? How big a role does aerodynamics play at Rockingham?
"It'll be a test, but I'd say that the first real test will come at Las Vegas. Aero is important there, but at Rockingham, mechanical balance is more important than aero balance. Anywhere you go these days you're dealing with aero issues, but Rockingham is one of the tracks where it's least affected. Even though Rockingham is a mile, aero just doesn't seem to be as important as it is at some of the other tracks we go to."