ATLANTA (April 16, 2002) - Tony Stewart comes to the Aaron's 499 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway a model of improvement.
Last year at this point in the season, Stewart had led only four laps, his best finish was a fourth-place effort at Rockingham (N.C.), and he was 13th in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings. But despite the slow start, Stewart went on to win three races and lead a total of 465 laps en route to finishing second to Jeff Gordon in the season-ending point standings.
Eight races into the 2002 season, Stewart has already notched one victory and led a total of 467 laps - two laps more than he led in all of 2001. With five top-five finishes to his credit, the driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac currently sits fifth in points, 147 markers behind point leader Sterling Marlin.
What makes Stewart's start to the 2002 campaign even more remarkable is how he finished in the season-opening Daytona 500. An engine failure relegated Stewart to a 43rd place finish that day, which left him 43rd in points - the lowest in points Stewart had ever been since joining the Winston Cup tour in 1999. But a fourth-place finish at Rockingham, a fifth-place run at Las Vegas and a win at Atlanta vaulted Stewart to fifth in points just four weeks later.
A violent accident while leading at Darlington (S.C.) dropped Stewart to 12th in points, and the residual effects from the accident forced Stewart from the car a week later while he was leading at Bristol (Tenn.). Veteran driver Todd Bodine filled-in for Stewart, and the result was a respectable 15th place finish, maintaining the team's 12th place point standing. Stewart finished fifth at Texas following a weekend off for the Easter holiday, and just last Sunday, finished third at Martinsville (Va.).
The #20 team of Joe Gibbs Racing isn't interested in "what ifs," but it's hard not wonder where Stewart would really be in points if an engine hadn't broken at Daytona, if there hadn't been an accident at Darlington, and if the effects of the Darlington wreck hadn't reared its head at Bristol. After all, Stewart has raced in the top-five all season. Only when incidents occur that are out of Stewart's control has he finished outside the top-five.
Just as Stewart has improved his point standing in 2002, his restrictor plate game also improved. The Home Depot Pontiac pilot comes to Talladega with two second-place finishes in his last two starts at the 2.66-mile oval.
The strong runs mark Stewart's learning curve at restrictor plate tracks, for as a rookie, plate racing was a frustrating experience. Like your first dance in junior high, who to partner with, how much space you leave between you and your partner, and how long to keep a partner, are only learned with time. With three years of restrictor plate racing under his belt, Stewart enters his 14th career restrictor plate race as prolific a racer as John Travolta is a dancer.
Even though the Pontiac is at an aerodynamic disadvantage when compared to the Fords and Dodges, you've still been able to run competitively in restrictor plate races. How?
"I've got a good crew chief in Greg Zipadelli, a good shock engineer in Ronny Crooks and a good aerodynamicist in Louis Duncan. We've worked really hard on our restrictor plate program and trying to get The Home Depot Pontiac more aerodynamically efficient. I think that showed during Daytona Speedweeks, so I think we're going to run well at Talladega also."
Because of the aerodynamic disadvantage you face, are you forced to drive differently?
"We definitely have to work every bit as hard as everybody else does. The good thing is that we're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We're just trying to take what we've got and find a little bit here and a little bit there to keep making our car better than what it already is. If we're able to do that, it'll keep us toward the front all day. If we're not able to do that, we're going to struggle."
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 now 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."
Are you in favor of having a common template, so that instead of a make's inherent advantage being the deciding factor in a race, it's a matter of which team puts forth the best effort?
"Absolutely. It would make things a lot easier for all of us if we could do that. You wouldn't hear the complaining that we have now of who has what or who doesn't have what. If all of us had the same thing, the racing could finally take the place of the politicking."
Is there an alternative to the restrictor plate to slow cars down on the superspeedways?
"I think if there was NASCAR would've found it by now. They're a pretty smart group of people, and if an option to the restrictor plate was available they would've already found it for us by now."
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 that 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 guys in front makes a move, the guy in second is going to go with him. That's the confidence Junior and I have together. It probably isn't always the smartest way to go about things, and I think Bobby showed me that at Daytona in our Gatorade Twin 125 race. We were together and I made a move and Bobby didn't go with me and everybody thought that it caused a lot of friction between us - but it didn't, especially when Bobby explained to me why he didn't go with me. It just showed me how much smarter Bobby Labonte is as a restrictor plate driver than I am.
"You've got to plan two different ways. 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. We've proven that we work well together, so it wouldn't surprise me if we hooked up in the draft again at Talladega."
You seemed frustrated during your freshman and sophomore years on the circuit whenever the series competed at a restrictor plate race. How do you feel now?
"I feel like I'm a lot further along, but I don't ever feel like I'll ever know everything there is to know. Things are constantly changing so you have to keep changing with them. But knowing that you've got good drafting partners out there helps. And every time we go back to a restrictor plate track I feel like I return a little smarter. Whether or not I finish better doesn't necessarily show how much I've learned, but I do feel that with each restrictor plate race I get more confidence as a restrictor plate driver."
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."
Do certain makes of cars, or more specifically, do certain team cars affect your car differently in relation to aerodynamics?
"Sometimes it does. It depends on what little things are done by each team to their car's bodies. Sometimes it makes it more difficult. Sometimes it makes it easier. You just have to go out there and run with guys during practice and find out which cars makes your car draft better."
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."
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."
GREG ZIPADELLI - crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac
You tested at Talladega April 9-10 with a new chassis driven by Joe Gibbs Racing's Busch Series driver Mike McLaughlin. Were you happy with the way the car performed?
"It was a brand new car that we originally built for the Daytona 500. When we first tested it was okay, but it didn't seem to be as good as our old car. It just didn't seem to show speed as easily as our old car did. But we went back to work on it and made some changes and we tested those changes at Talladega. We eventually got it where we wanted it. Off the truck the old car was still quicker, but by the end of the test we got the new car better than the old car. Plus, with the old car being as good as it is, I'd rather leave it at home and save it for when we go back to Daytona.
"Aero-wise the cars were both the same when we took them to the wind tunnel. The new car was actually a couple counts better. But each car has a sweet spot. And with that old car, which was new for the 2000 Daytona 500 and now has seven races on it - which is a lot of time for a chassis - it just seems to respond well to the changes we make. But because that car is so good, it's given us a good yardstick to measure this new car with."
Since you're at an aerodynamic disadvantage with the Pontiac, how creative do you have to be to massage speed out of a seven-year-old body style?
"When they keep cutting spoilers off the other manufacturers it makes it pretty hard to keep up. But we've always lacked front downforce on the speedways. We can get front downforce, but our drag would just be horrendous. So a proper balance is what we're always looking at to get the car to drive well.
"Talladega is a little different than Daytona. You're looking more for speed than anything else. Your speed is what it is. If you've got a good, fast race car you can overcome any handling issues you may have, unless you're really, really bad. Handling at Talladega is just nowhere near as much an issue as it is at Daytona. It's still a fun race track to go to and race because some of the pushing off of turn two, the handling characteristic you always get at Daytona every lap, isn't near as bad as it is at Talladega. But at the same time, that can be a little bit frustrating, because it's so hard to find speed. Little bits here and there to make the car faster - that's what we're looking for. If you're handling really well at Daytona, you can make up for a lack of speed. But at Talladega, it's all about having horsepower and an aerodynamically clean race car."
If you could go to Talladega with the perfect Pontiac, what would it be?
"I'd like to have what all the other manufacturers have. I want an inch kickout on the front nose. And we're the only car with a six-and-a-half inch spoiler. We've got a quarter more than anybody else and half more than the Fords. It doesn't make sense that they have to do that. The Fords have all the front downforce they want on the speedways, but they still get a little extra. We didn't have the downforce last week at Martinsville (Va.), we don't have it this week at Talladega, and we still don't get anything. If you look at the whole package, it doesn't make any sense. But that's what we've got, and we'll do what we have to do with it. We'll still race well. We finished second at Talladega the last two times we've been there and we've had a lot of other top-five runs at that place. Talladega is one of them old, cool places where we race. It's kind of like coming to Martinsville. It's what NASCAR is and we look forward to going back."