Messin' with Texas ATLANTA (April 2, 2008) -- The slogan "Don't Mess with Texas" is practically an invitation for Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Stewart has been messing around in Texas since...
Messin' with Texas
ATLANTA (April 2, 2008) -- The slogan "Don't Mess with Texas" is practically an invitation for Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Stewart has been messing around in Texas since November 1995 when he drove A.J. Foyt's Indy car at Texas World Speedway in College Station during a commercial shoot. And while those laps were a long way from an actual race, the then 24-year-old Stewart parlayed his time with Foyt into a full-fledged drive in the IRL IndyCar Series that brought Stewart back to Texas in 1997.
Before Stewart became synonymous with stock cars, he was the poster child for the IRL. In his three IRL races at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Stewart started on the pole twice (June 1997 and June 1998) and second once (September 1998). And while he never finished an IRL race at the 1.5-mile oval -- engine failures hampered him in June 1997 and September 1998 and mechanical woes sidelined him in June 1998 -- Stewart still led 208 of a possible 624 laps (33.4 percent).
Fast forward to 2008, and Stewart is again a lap leader at Texas Motor Speedway, but this time, he at least has some hardware to show for his efforts.
In his last six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Texas, Stewart has led the most laps among active drivers (437), thanks in large part to a dominating win in the 2006 Dickies 500 that saw Stewart lead eight times for a race-high 278 laps. And in his 12 career Sprint Cup starts at Texas, Stewart has seven top-10s, which ties him with five other active drivers for the most top-10s at Texas.
The two-time Sprint Cup champion returns to Texas for Sunday's Samsung 500 intent on padding those aforementioned statistics.
Currently sixth in points six races into the marathon-like 38-race weekend schedule that is the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the now 36-year-old Stewart is searching for his first win of 2008 and the 33rd of his Sprint Cup career. While solidly in the top-12 -- the cutoff for the exclusive Chase for the Championship during the year's final 10 races -- Stewart wants the 10 bonus points for a regular-season win that are added to one's Chase tally.
With the Samsung 500 trophy being an exquisitely carved wooden cowboy boot, Stewart sees the trophy as a metaphor to kick his championship aspirations into high-gear.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
After racing at Atlanta where you notched a strong second-place finish, do you have any expectations for Texas, as the two layouts are similar?
"It's the first time that we've been there with this car, so it's kind of a 'from scratch'-type attitude. It's not an Atlanta. It's not California. It's not Vegas, but I'd say Vegas is probably going to be a little bit closer to it than anywhere we've been so far. We'll probably start fairly close to where we ended up at Vegas and go from there."
How has the current generation race car made racing at a track like Texas different than in year's past?
"Because they're not designed to handle as well, it obviously puts the driver more in the equation. But what it's put a high emphasis on now is engineering. You're still not going to make it any faster than it's able to go. Now, you have to rely on the engineers to find the combination that will make the car go fast, and then you just wrestle the car from that point. A driver won't be able to make up the difference. We're not going to be able to take a 10th-place car and run first with it. A driver might be able to maintain what he's got, but if his car isn't driving well, he's not going to win the race, and that's where engineering is coming more into play.
"As technology and time have marched on, the window of getting your car right has become smaller and smaller and smaller. The engineers work within that window to get the car right, but you still have to have a driver who can put it in that window and drive it to its capabilities. So now, when you have a window that small, if you can pick up a half-tenth of a second as a driver, that makes that half-tenth more important than it used to be five years ago. Back then, a half-tenth might've been a tenth-and-a-half. With the window getting tighter and tighter, it makes the emphasis on the driver more important. But it's not just the driver. It's still about getting that car right. That's why the engineers play such a critical role. If they can find a half-tenth, it's just as important as a driver picking up a half-tenth. It makes every area from A-to-Z that much more critical than before."
When you get to the race track, are you finding that what you have when you unload on Friday is what you pretty much have for the rest of the weekend?
"I think you'll find a range that works. Everybody is still trying to figure it out, especially on the mile-and-a-half and two-mile ovals, where that 'sweet-spot' is. And once you find it, you don't stray very far from one side to the other. A computer program is going to tell you what you have to run now. The Roush guys talked about that last year, that when they get to the track they get a sheet that says, 'This is what the simulation program tells us is the setup to run.' And the setup is pretty much right on."
Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage has been lobbying NASCAR for an open test at Texas or opening up the track on Thursday to give drivers and teams more track time before this weekend. Is that something that you would like to see?
"No. I don't think it has to happen. By going to California and Vegas, I think we all got a lot of laps. It's no different than going into any other race weekend. If you give the teams five days, they would run five days trying to get ready for a race. I think the racing will be fine. I think everybody, I would assume, has a pretty good game plan going into it. I don't think it's anything that's going to be an issue."
In your last six races at Texas you've led a series-best 437 laps (21.8 percent) and have run in the top-15 for almost 90 percent of those races. How have you been able to adapt to Texas' layout?
"I've found that you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy that misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn't make a mistake and you've got a little better car than they do, the groove has moved up enough over the years to where the track's a little wider, so you have more room to get a run on a guy. But as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car's handling will become more important. And when a guy makes a mistake, you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up."
Texas is a track where you've been consistently good. Does that make you more comfortable?
"Yes. Absolutely. It puts you in a positive frame of mind when you go to a track knowing that you've run well there before."
What is it, specifically, that makes you so comfortable at Texas?
"You have to be comfortable or you're not going to go fast. Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) knows how to find the kind of balance I like in the car that makes me comfortable. The more comfortable I am, the faster we go.
"This track, the grooves have moved around, especially in the last couple of years. We've seen the track start getting wider and Eddie (Gossage, track president) took the initiative to try to get the bumps smoother in (turns) one and two. A lot of promoters wouldn't have done that. They wouldn't have taken that much time and effort, but it's made it to where you can move around on the race track and where you can run the top side or the bottom side. It's nice from a driver's perspective to be able to have that flexibility behind the steering wheel, knowing that if your car's not driving exactly the way you want it to, you can move around the race track and find a spot the car likes better.
"Anytime you put more seasons on a race track, the better it gets because it seems like the pavement wears out on the bottom and it makes it to where you can run the top and be fast and you can run the bottom and be fast. It makes the whole race track, speed-wise, about the same, versus when they pave a race track and the only groove is right on the bottom. The fastest way is the shortest way, because it all has the same amount of grip, so the shorter distance is faster. Every year that we come here I think the racing just gets better and better, as far as being able to move around on the race track and guys not having to just follow each other and get stuck behind each other. You can actually pass. You can race. You can get away from guys if your car's fast."
Before you raced at Texas in a stock car, you raced there in an Indy car. What was the difference?
"The IRL car was nothing like driving a stock car. You could go anywhere on the track with the IRL car that you wanted to, and you could run wide-open while doing it. It was as easy as riding down the interstate, whereas with a stock car, you're not off the gas very long, but you do have to lift. With the track being so line-sensitive, it's really important that you're doing the same thing every lap, and making sure you're very consistent in how you're driving the car."