TONY STEWART A Bumpy Ride From Daytona ATLANTA (April 26, 2005) - Tony Stewart led seven times for a race-high 107 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race, and he left the 2.5-mile Daytona (Fla.) International ...
A Bumpy Ride From Daytona
ATLANTA (April 26, 2005) - Tony Stewart led seven times for a race-high 107 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race, and he left the 2.5-mile Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway sixth in points after being shuffled out of the draft in the waning laps.
Eight races and one up-and-down roller-coaster ride later, Stewart returns to restrictor plate racing with Sunday's Aaron's 499 at the 2.66-mile Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Stewart enters round number nine on the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule 14th in points, with three of his top-10 finishes offset by five finishes of 17th or worse. A resurgence of the dominance displayed at Daytona would be a welcome sight at Talladega, as Stewart and his #20 Home Depot Racing Team seek a return to the front-running consistency that made them a fixture within the top-10 point standings for 51 consecutive weeks. A rare DNF (Did Not Finish) at Texas two weeks ago dropped them out of the top-10, leaving reigning series champion Kurt Busch with the longest top-10 stead in the point standings at 43 weeks.
The #20 team endured another dip in their roller-coaster ride Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway when a 33rd place finish distanced them ever further from the top-10. But with Talladega next in their sights, Stewart and Co. look to parlay their Daytona dominance from mid-February into a summer catalyst that will recast them into chase for the championship contenders.
You dropped out of the top-10 after the Texas race two weeks ago. With the "Chase" formula being used to determine who competes for the Nextel Cup championship, at what point does it become urgent to finish as high as possible to solidify your top-10 point standing?
"If you're outside of the top-10 in points with just two or three races before the cutoff at Richmond (Sept. 10), there's going to be a greater sense of urgency. But there's still a lot of racing to go between now and then. We take it one week at a time. If you go out and try to win races the points take care of themselves. We aren't getting a big sense of urgency right now to worry too much about it."
You've had up-and-down starts to past Nextel Cup seasons, but you always seem able to turn your fortunes around. Is there any particular reason why?
"It just seems that historically, we normally have a slow start to the season when the tracks are cooler and have a lot more grip. It seems like when we get into May, June, and July that we really hit our stride. That's when it starts getting warmer and the tracks get slicker and it's harder to find grip on the race track. That's the point of the season where we really start gaining momentum. So, I always look forward to the month of May coming around.
"But I don't feel a sense of urgency of trying to get back on track right now. I feel like we're just kind of in a learning process right now. We're not really on par like we've been in the past, but I'm not feeling like we'd better find something soon or else we're going to be in big trouble. It's just a matter of doing what we've been doing and keeping the guys on this Home Depot team pumped up. Sooner or later, we're going to find something. With this caliber of race team, you don't win a championship by not knowing what you're supposed to do. It's just a matter of finding the missing piece to our equation. This team is certainly capable of finding it, so I honestly think we'll be fine."
Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole has had a tough start to this season. Is there a particular reason why?
"No, but I wish there was because it would be a lot easier to figure out. We're just having a period where we're struggling. You look at every one of the race teams out there - even Ferrari in Formula 1 - they're not having a stellar year either. If we knew what the common variable was, we'd know what to do to fix it. But it's just been a little bit of everything this year. We've been off on our aero program some. Obviously, we had a motor problem that we haven't had in the past happen at Texas where the crankshaft broke. We've had weird things happen that we're not used to. So, I'm not sure what the problem is. The main thing is to get ourselves solidly back in the top-10 in points so that there's no worry in making the Chase."
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."
Restrictor plate races always seem to be a crapshoot, where so much of what happens is out of a driver's hands and out of a team's hands. Is there any strategy involved, or is it just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented?
"The strategy is making sure you've got somebody you can draft with. You have to take the opportunities as they come, but with those opportunities you have to make a very quick decision. You've got to think, 'What happens if I try this and it doesn't work? What are the ramifications going to be?' You don't have the luxury of sitting down and taking the time to analyze the situation. You've got to make a split-second decision. A lot of times it'll work, but there are times when the decision that you made doesn't work. But once you've committed yourself to doing something there's not much you can do about it."
After Rusty Wallace ran 228 mph in an unofficial test last June at Talladega using an unrestricted engine, would you be in favor of removing the restrictor plates from engines for future races at Daytona and Talladega?
"Absolutely, I'd be the first one to jump out there. It would bring the driver back into it. Instead of teams working so hard to build cars that are slick, they could try to build cars that actually handle again. There's always talk about why we get into these big crashes and it's because there's 40 of us running in one big pack, and we're so close together you could throw a blanket over us. If you had cars running in the 215 to 220 mph bracket, you wouldn't be able to run that close to each other because you'd have to move around on the race track to find clean air. We wouldn't be able to stay down on the bottom of the track. We'd have to drive around like we do at Michigan and find places on the track where our car drives better. I think it would make for exciting racing to be able to do that again."
With all of the rule changes regarding restrictor plate racing in the last couple of years, how much control does a driver actually have in today's restrictor plate racing environment?
"Once I heard what Rusty (Wallace) ran at Talladega, I don't think we even need restrictor plates. It's still not real racing when somebody else has to go with you and somebody else can dictate how you run. If you don't ever have anybody go with you all day you never have a shot at winning. But if you have guys go with you, you have a shot."
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."
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."