Talladega: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart One needs to be lucky and good at Talladega. ATLANTA (April 1, 2003) - For all the preparation that goes into just one restrictor plate race, there are a lot of variables that no amount of money can buy to ensure a strong finish.

Tony Stewart
One needs to be lucky and good at Talladega.

ATLANTA (April 1, 2003) - For all the preparation that goes into just one restrictor plate race, there are a lot of variables that no amount of money can buy to ensure a strong finish. With a pack of 43 cars jostling for position at just under 200 mph, the tap of one's fender into another driver's bumper usually spells trouble - not just for them, but for the 10-20 drivers who must now thread a 3,400-pound race car down a strip of asphalt knowing that some of their counterparts aren't pointed in the same direction as they are.

The "Big Wreck" is a part of restrictor plate racing. It's not all the time, mind you, but it's often enough that drivers and teams will enter Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway knowing that their time spent in the wind tunnel and their millions spent on engine research could well be donated to the Motorsports Hall of Fame, which at the entrance to the 2.66-mile oval, features a section called the "Wreck Room," where torn up race cars from spectacular accidents that drivers walked away from are on display for an eight-dollar admission charge.

Luck is perhaps just as hot a commodity as horsepower is this weekend at Talladega, for both will be needed when the second of four restrictor plate races on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule gets underway.

For Tony Stewart and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team, luck - specifically good luck - is something they seek. After two straight DNFs (Did Not Finish) dropped them from second to seventh in points, a strong run at Talladega is sorely needed. The #20 team has certainly proven their prowess at Talladega, logging three second-place finishes as well as a fifth and a sixth in their eight career starts. Their three finishes of 29th or worse can be attributed to previous "Big Wrecks," as circumstances beyond the team's control conspired against them.

The #20 team looks to avoid those "circumstances" this weekend at Talladega, while working toward their first victory in a point-paying restrictor plate race.

Was there anything learned at Daytona during Speedweeks that you can apply toward Talladega?

"It's still pretty much business as usual. You still hold it wide-open. Whoever has the best and fastest car is probably going to win again."

Have the common body templates allowed for more passing at restrictor plate venues?

"No, but I think the good thing is that it's made everybody finally shut up about body styles being uneven. They're all the same now, and whoever wins the race will have won because their team did a better job and their driver did a better job then the next group of guys."

Is a fast car all you need to be successful in restrictor plate races?

"You have to have a fast car. But with that fast car, you've got to have a good team that gets you in and out of the pits fast, and you've got to have a driver who knows what he's doing. Get all that together, along with a little bit of luck, and you can have a good day."

What's the difference between racing at Talladega and Daytona?

"You can run two and three-wide all day at Daytona. At Talladega you can run three-wide all day easily, and sometimes four-wide. Essentially, Talladega just has an extra lane compared to Daytona, because its track is a little easier to get a hold of mechanically. Handling isn't near as big of an issue as it is at Daytona. Talladega is just about speed, and finding more of it. It's bigger, so its corners are a little bit bigger, which is why handling doesn't seem to be quite as much of an issue."

You've seemed to work with Dale Earnhardt Jr., a lot during past restrictor plate races. Has he become an unofficial teammate for you at Talladega and Daytona?

"We both know that we run really well together. I guess to a certain degree we are unofficial teammates. My teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing - Bobby Labonte - when we're able to run together we typically run well. I think Bobby's philosophy on running together is different than Junior's and mine. Basically, you just find guys you're comfortable running with, and I'm very comfortable running with Bobby whenever I can. But it seems like Junior and I somehow always find each other and get with each other and have the confidence in one another to know that whoever's leading, that the guy behind him knows that if the guy in front makes a move, the guy in second is going to go with him. That's the confidence Junior and I have together. When you have the pairing that Junior and I have, we trust each other and it gives us a level of confidence that not too many drivers have found with other drivers. He's real comfortable with me and I'm real comfortable with him. Our view is that if we get together, then we can go by everybody. As long as we end up getting grouped together, we always get back to the front - no matter what."

Drivers at Talladega will complain of an "aero push" while racing in traffic. What exactly is an aero push?

"You have two types of balance on your race car. You have mechanical balance and aero balance. Your mechanical balance is comprised of springs, shocks, sway bars and suspension pieces. Your aero balance relates to the total aerodynamics of the car - how the air flows over the top of the race car and how it creates downforce in different areas. If you're running with a car right in front of you, you don't have the air hitting the front of your car as you would if you were running in clean air, where there's no one in front of you. When someone is in front of you and you're not getting that air pushing down on the front of the nose, the car isn't getting the downforce it needs to stick to the race track. That creates an understeer condition, which makes the car push out toward the wall. That's what's happening when you hear drivers complain of an aero push."

What's your biggest complaint about restrictor plate racing?

"You have to block, and it seems to be a necessary evil now with the way the rules are and the way the cars drive. The cars drive so well that your only saving grace to keep your position is to turn down and block somebody. I'd like to see NASCAR do something about it because I hate having to do it. But I do it because everybody else does it."

Patience is an obvious virtue on the short tracks, but how important is it at a restrictor plate track?

"It's the gospel, basically. There are a lot of times when you think you can pull out and pass, but if you do, once you get there you realize that you can't pass. It makes it real critical that you take your time and that you don't get caught up in trying to make a move too fast. Just stay in line, and sometimes you'll have more patience than 20 other guys."

You've performed drafting in Winston Cup and in the Indy Racing League (IRL). Are the drafting principles that you apply in both series the same or are they different?

"It's a lot more technical with the Cup cars because of how close you can run with each other. With the IRL cars, you would just line up straight behind a guy, get a run on him and go by. With the Cup cars it's a lot harder because you have to be real precise with your movements, and you always have to be aware that there are other cars around you all the time. It's not just one car versus another. It's one car versus 42 cars out there all in a big group. With that many cars around you, it just makes it that much harder."

The last time you were in Alabama (March 17-19) you got a chance to go turkey hunting with the governor. What was that like?

"That was my first time hunting anything. I'm going back this week, hunting during the day and fishing at night. I didn't get anything during the tournament, so I'm going to make up for it this time around."

-jgr/hdr-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing