Tony Stewart Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes ATLANTA (June 22, 2004) - While the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir will sing the national anthem before Sunday's Dodge/Save Mart 350k at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., Jimmy Buffett's ...
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
ATLANTA (June 22, 2004) - While the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir will sing the national anthem before Sunday's Dodge/Save Mart 350k at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., Jimmy Buffett's "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes" would be an appropriate soundtrack for the 43 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers as they compete in the first of two road course races in 2004.
The winding, 1.99-mile layout in California's wine country is the farthest venue NASCAR teams travel to, and for some drivers the trip only gets longer the moment they begin turning left and right. It's a different kind of racing in a different kind of region, and it requires the appropriate mindset.
Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, has the right mindset and the track record to prove it.
In 10 career Nextel Cup starts at Sonoma and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) - the two road courses on the schedule - Stewart has a pole, two wins, a second, three other top-10s and only one finish lower than 15th. And outside of Nextel Cup, Stewart has continued to demonstrate his road racing abilities in sports cars. He has twice competed in the Rolex 24 Hour race at Daytona (Fla.), and almost won it this year, leading 355 of 526 laps with co-drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Andy Wallace to hold a commanding five-lap advantage before mechanical problems less than 20 minutes short of the finish ended their shot at victory.
Sonoma marks Stewart's return to road racing since that disappointment at Daytona Feb. 1. And while the sports car Stewart drove at Daytona differs greatly from his Joe Gibbs Racing-prepared Home Depot Chevrolet, it gives him a leg up on the majority of his counterparts whose last road course race came at Watkins Glen last August. Further adding to Stewart's odds this weekend was a successful test at Virginia International Raceway in Alton on June 8. There, the team shook down Chassis No. 48 - the same car that delivered the team's two road course victories and road course pole - while Stewart further polished his road racing skills.
Hungry to earn his first victory of 2004 and the 18th of his career, Stewart is well-prepared for the rigors of this weekend's road course event in Sonoma.
You tested June 8 at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) in preparation for the Dodge/Save Mart 350k. How did it go?
"It was just good to go to VIR for the day, and if nothing else, get back in the mode of downshifting, upshifting and all the other techniques of road course racing. Obviously, things are different on a road course. You don't use the clutch when you're shifting. You're using a heel and toe braking technique. And after running a bunch of ovals, it's important to get used to doing those things again."
How similar is VIR to Sonoma?
"It's fairly close. It's a nice facility. It has a really long front straightaway that has a 180-degree hairpin turn. You're in second gear when you get there, so it simulates going into turn 11 at Sonoma. And it kind of simulates going into turn one at Watkins Glen. You can learn a lot from the braking aspect there. Basically, when it comes to turning left and right, whatever makes it turn left and right at VIR is what'll make it turn left and right anywhere you go."
Explain a lap around Infineon Raceway.
"Ever since they redesigned it (prior to the 2002 race), going into turn one is different from where you pass the start/finish line. It's a lot harder to get up the hill than it used to be, but it's still the same classic, off-camber, blind, right-hand corner at the top of the hill - which has always been one of my favorite spots on the track. Then you go into the two esses that are uphill, and after that you go over a blind peak and down another hill to the new section of the track - where you can actually run over top of the rumple strips and get right up next to the retaining wall. You've got another hairpin corner to the right, and then you start in the old classic section of the esses, but the geography around that area has changed. They opened it up and made it more fan friendly, but the track in that section is still the same. The biggest and most critical passing area is going into turn 11. Then you have to get up off that corner - that's a big acceleration corner - and it's probably one of the hardest parts in getting around there."
Is turn 11 the only passing zone at Sonoma?
"No, there are a couple of other areas. Going down into what I guess would be turn four and turn seven - two consecutive corners - you've got a couple of areas that are small braking zones. But the big one is going into turn 11. That's the biggest passing zone."
Is the notion of going slower to go faster probably best realized at Sonoma?
"The guys who are really good with throttle control are the guys who are good at Sonoma. Guys who are just used to mashing the gas struggle at Sonoma. It's one of those tracks that challenges you physically and mentally and makes you stay on top of your game all day."
Did your near win in this year's Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona make you hungry to get back to a road course?
"It certainly made me look forward to Sonoma. I enjoyed the Crawford car I drove in the 24 Hour race even though it's a totally different type of car than The Home Depot Chevrolet we'll run at Sonoma. It's good knowing that the last time I ran a road course I did pretty well, so Sonoma does give me something to look forward to."
Did you learn anything from the 24 Hour race that you could apply at Sonoma?
"It's hard to say because a sports car and a stock car are so different. There are probably some little things that can help. We'll just have to wait and see. Hopefully I can use some of the stuff I learned, but if I can't, so be it."
From your rookie year in 1999 - where you attended the Bob Bondurant Driving School before your first road course race in a stock car - to where you are now, can you describe how you've become one of the better road course racers on the circuit?
"Chris Cook was my instructor at Bondurant, and Chris spent a lot of time working with me individually. He had spent a little bit of time in a Cup car and understood what my challenges were and what I needed to get used to. Having him as an instructor was definitely an advantage. He just taught me a lot of things that gave me a really good base of how to approach road course racing. And as time went on, I've learned some techniques that I like a little better and actually help me. It's just a matter of trying to find stuff that you like and stuff that's going to work for you."
How much will the new pavement at Sonoma affect your driving style?
"I just think the track is going to have so much grip that it's going to be hard to pass from the standpoint that everyone is going to be fast. It's not going to make it very easy to get off the corner and beat a guy off the corner because of forward bite or anything like that. So I think that'll be a disadvantage this weekend, unless you can get decent track position. But who knows? We've been to some tracks this year where there's been new pavement and we've put on a pretty decent show. The guys who do these paving jobs are getting better about the mixes they use, which is making some of these newly paved tracks a little racier than we might've expected. Hopefully that'll be the case this weekend at Sonoma."
With seemingly half the field having a diverse racing background, is there such a thing as a road course ringer anymore?
"Yes and no. There are road course guys who are good at road course racing but they're not used to running stock cars. But there are guys who are used to running stock cars who aren't used to running road courses. But if you look at the history of road course racing, the guys who come from a road racing background seem to be able to get into any kind of car and do fairly well. So I think they do have an advantage, but maybe not as much as they had five or six years ago."
Considering your recent history of racing sports cars on road courses, do you consider yourself a ringer?
"I don't think so. If you look at how many Nextel Cup races I've run on road courses (10), there are a lot of veterans who have run two or three times the amount of road course races I have. I don't think you can call me a ringer. I think you can call me a guy who is solid on the road courses because we've won at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, but I don't think you can call me a ringer."
If a driver hates racing at road courses, is he already beaten simply because he doesn't have the proper mindset to compete there?
"They've already got a strike against them for that reason. If a guy goes there with the attitude that they're not going to enjoy it no matter what, then that's probably what'll happen. Until they get the mindset that they're going to enjoy running a road course and that they're going to have fun with it, they'll have a strike against them. Success on a road course breeds success. If you have some success on a road course you're probably going to like racing there. If you don't have success on a road course, it's probably a style of racing you're not going to like."
NASCAR has road courses, superspeedways, short tracks and intermediate tracks. When are they going to add a dirt oval to the schedule?
"If NASCAR has two road course races then they ought to have two dirt track races. I'd pick Eldora (Rossburg, Ohio) and DuQuoin (Ill.) as the two dirt tracks. Eldora is a really wide, half-mile track that could handle Nextel Cup cars and DuQuoin could do the same because it's a big mile track. I think there's plenty of room to have a couple of dirt races on the schedule."