TONY STEWART A Toast to 300 in Sonoma ATLANTA (June 18, 2007) -- As the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series rolls into California's wine country for this weekend's Toyota/SaveMart 350k at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, it's time to toast Tony Stewart's ...
A Toast to 300 in Sonoma
ATLANTA (June 18, 2007) -- As the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series rolls into California's wine country for this weekend's Toyota/SaveMart 350k at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, it's time to toast Tony Stewart's 300th career Nextel Cup start.
The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet first came to stock car racing's pinnacle circuit in 1999 when he teamed with Joe Gibbs Racing and crew chief Greg Zipadelli. They debuted in the Daytona 500, where Stewart qualified on the outside front row next to another up-and-coming driver -- Jeff Gordon.
Stewart scored his first win in his 25th career start at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, and has gone on to post 28 other wins and two Nextel Cup championships in his 274 starts since. On the cusp of his 300th start, Stewart is now ready to nab his 30th career win.
In addition to his milestone start, it's a smart bet that the 10-turn, 1.99-mile Infineon Raceway road course will be the site of career win No. 30 and Stewart's first of 2007.
The nine-year Nextel Cup veteran has five road course wins, two of which came at Infineon. Stewart also has a pole there, as he set fast time for the 2002 race -- the year of his first Nextel Cup championship.
Stewart's other three road course wins came at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, the only other road course on the Nextel Cup schedule. When you combine Stewart's exploits at both Infineon and The Glen, he has seven top-twos and 10 top-10s in 16 career starts. He has only two finishes lower than 15th to give him an average finish of ninth.
Finishing well has meant starting well. In those 16 races, Stewart has qualified within the first two rows nine times, and in the top-10 13 times.
With a return to the road course, expect Stewart to make his 300th career Nextel Cup race a memorable one.
You'll be making your 300th career Nextel Cup start at Sonoma. Does that surprise you or do you look at it as just another number?
"I'll give you the reality of this deal. I didn't even know it until somebody told me. And I was like, 'Okay, that's cool.' But then it was back to business. It's a milestone, but it's not as big when you compare it to some of the other drivers and see how many starts they have in their career. When you compare it to Richard Petty (1,184 starts) or Ricky Rudd (889 starts) or Mark Martin (686 starts), 300 isn't a lot."
Even though you downplay your 300th start, do you consider yourself a NASCAR veteran?
"I think after eight years I'm somewhat of a veteran. I'm not yet an ageless veteran, but a veteran nonetheless."
With five road course wins, do you feel you have a better opportunity to win on a road course than you do at some of the other oval tracks you visit?
"It's definitely a place I feel like we've got the potential to win, even before we make a single lap."
Early in your NASCAR career you were asked if your road racing style was banzai or refined. Back then you said it was a little bit of both. With 16 road course races now behind you, how would you describe your road racing style today?
"I would like to believe it's a little more refined. We have five wins at the road courses, and I'd like to think that's pretty good over the last eight years. I feel like we've run really well on the road courses, especially at Sonoma. It's one of my favorite tracks on the circuit because it is so unique and different. It's a race I look forward to going to ever year."
Do you run a road course race differently than you run an oval, in that when you run an oval there seems to be a large swath of time in the middle part of the race where you conserve and plan your strategy for the last 100 miles? Are you able to conserve during any part of a road course race, or do you have to go hard every lap?
"You have to play the race strategy out. It's such a long track that guys don't go a lap down as easily as they do on an oval. You have to run as hard as you have to in order to stay ahead of everybody. And when you get yourself in a position where you can be easy on your equipment, especially the tires, you take that opportunity, because if it is a long run, a lot of times that'll work out in your favor. If your car's not right, you can't just keep pushing it or else you'll drive the tires right off of it."
You tested at the Virginia International Raceway road course in Alton May 29-30 with the Car of Tomorrow (CoT) in preparation for the Toyota/SaveMart 350k. How different is the CoT on a road course compared to the traditional car you're used to running?
"Well, it crashes the same. I went off track twice and tore up a lot of stuff. It's just slower. It doesn't drive as well, obviously. But it's still a fun car to drive on a road course because it is different."
Does the CoT's higher roll center alter the way you drive it on a road course?
"It's been top-heavy everywhere we've been, so we're kind of used to it. It'll be the same on a road course."
People always seem to make a big deal out of the road course "ringers" that tend to show up at the two road course races on the Nextel Cup schedule. But after over two straight decades of road course racing in NASCAR -- and you specifically having eight years of road course racing in NASCAR -- is there such a thing anymore as a road course ringer?
"No, not at all. You look at guys who have run really well on the road courses the last couple of years and it's Jeff Gordon, myself and Kevin Harvick. There hasn't been a road course ringer to win a race yet, so I don't know why everybody uses that in the equation other than it gives them something different to write about. You still have to beat the same guys that have been winning, and all you have to do is look at the stats and the stats will tell you who you've got to beat there."
How tough will former Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya be in his first Nextel Cup race on a road course?
"It's going to be very impressive. I think it'll be Juan's best chance at winning a race to date, and I think it'll be very entertaining to watch. His talent is going to far outweigh the ability of the Car of Tomorrow on a road course. It'll be interesting to see how he'll be able to manipulate that car. Whether I'm in front of him or behind him, it'll be very entertaining to watch."
What does it take to win at Sonoma?
"You've just got to have a good handling car. Aerodynamics are not the least bit important at Sonoma, which is great because it's one of the few tracks that we go to that we don't have to worry about aero balance or anything like that. It's just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day and having good pit stops and pit strategy and staying out of trouble.
"A lot can happen at Sonoma. You've got to be patient all day. You get a lot of cautions there and a lot of guys end up beating and banging on each other. I mean, the cars look like they've been to a race at Martinsville (Va.) because it's a short road course. Save that car for the last 20 laps because that's the critical time. Do what you have to do to get through the first 90 laps, but those last 20 are the ones when you really have to go, and you need your car to be in one piece to make it happen."
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 rumble 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."