Tony Stewart Atlanta's past gives clues to Texas' future. ATLANTA (March 25, 2003) - When Atlanta Motor Speedway was reconfigured and repaved in 1997, speeds shot up dramatically. But with the increase in speeds, the amount of racing room ...
Atlanta's past gives clues to Texas' future.
ATLANTA (March 25, 2003) - When Atlanta Motor Speedway was reconfigured and repaved in 1997, speeds shot up dramatically. But with the increase in speeds, the amount of racing room decreased - not because the track was made narrower, but because the new pavement had only allowed one racing groove to take shape.
Fast forward to 2002, where Tony Stewart had this to say about Atlanta Motor Speedway prior to winning the track's spring Winston Cup race:
"You can run all the way down on the white line when the tires are fresh, but as you get some laps on the tires you start moving up the race track. You can end up running three-wide, with the guy on the outside running right up against the wall. The track is fun because you're able to move around a lot."
Time and Mother Nature allowed Atlanta to become more than just a one groove race track. The pavement aged and race car after race car embedded thousands of miles of rubber into the asphalt. Years later, the result was a multi-groove track that allowed drivers to pretty much race wherever they dared.
Texas Motor Speedway, site of this Sunday's Samsung/RadioShack 500, seems to be following the same timeline as its sister track in Atlanta, at least for Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet.
While new to the circuit in 1997, the 1.5-mile Texas oval was repaved in August of 2001. When the Winston Cup Series returned to Texas in 2002, Bill Elliott shattered the old track qualifying record with a lap of 194.224 mph, a speed that was 2 mph faster than the previous track record. Matt Kenseth ended up winning the race, but it was Stewart who led 15 laps and finished fifth - a career-best for him at Texas.
All of this brings us back to Atlanta. Following Stewart's career-best Atlanta finish - ninth in the 2001 fall race for his first top-10 at the 1.54-mile oval - Stewart went on to win the very next race at Atlanta for his first ever victory in a 500-mile event. Simply put, the more the track aged, the better Stewart became.
The asphalt at Texas is no longer fresh, and with NASCAR Winston Cup, Busch Series, Craftsman Truck and Indy Racing League events having taken place, there's plenty of rubber laid through the corners at Texas. Perhaps Texas' age and Atlanta's history will translate to career win number 16 for Stewart.
Since it was repaved in 1997, Atlanta was a track that as it aged, you performed better. Texas - Atlanta's sister track - was new to the circuit in 1997. Is Texas following in Atlanta's footsteps, in that the more the track ages the better you perform?
"I certainly hope so. As time goes on and the surface wears out a little bit, I think we'll able to move around on that race track more like we do at Atlanta and Charlotte. But only time will tell."
How many realistic grooves are there to race on at Texas?
"It seemed like last year there were two grooves. It seemed like it did open up a little bit, but you still don't see the wide racing like you do at Charlotte and Atlanta. But those tracks have been around a long time and they both get two Winston Cup races a year on them - Charlotte gets three if you count The Winston. So those tracks have aged a little quicker than Texas has."
With grip being an issue, where are the passing zones at Texas?
"I think 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, I honestly think the groove will move up a little bit this year to where it'll be a little wider and you'll 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."
Has Texas been one of the tracks on the Winston Cup circuit where getting comfortable has been hard for you and your team to achieve?
"It hasn't been a good track for us historically. It just seems like Texas is one of those places where we haven't figured out how to be a top-flight car. We've never set the world on fire at Texas, but we have had some solid runs. It's one of the places where we have to try and pick up our performance. For me, it comes down to just feel more than anything. A driver has to like the feel of his race car and the feel of the track. If one of those things doesn't mesh right, then you're probably not going to be as successful as you want to be."
Despite the relative youth of Texas Motor Speedway, it's had quite a history of being a treacherous race track. Why is that the case?
"I've run there in a Busch car, an IRL (Indy Racing League) car and in a Cup car with this Home Depot team. I never looked at it as a treacherous race track. For some reason, it seemed that the track's transitions were very line-sensitive. The corners' exits and entries were very tricky, and that's what made Texas difficult. I don't think it's treacherous. You just have to hit your marks every lap. Texas doesn't leave a whole lot of room for error."
Before you raced at Texas in a Winston Cup car, you raced there in an Indy Racing League 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 the Cup 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."
The World of Outlaws team that you own with driver Danny Lasoski will be competing this weekend over at The Dirt Track at Texas Motor Speedway. How much time will you be spending with them while in Texas?
"I'll be able to do what I need to do with The Home Depot Chevrolet and still have plenty of time to go over to The Dirt Track and watch Danny and the team. I'll be busy as a car owner working with the team, but that's something I look forward to. It's why I'm involved with the World of Outlaws."
How do you balance your time between your World of Outlaws program and your Winston Cup responsibilities?
"There are seven or eight Outlaw races this year where we're going to be racing Cup at the same place at the same time. I'll do my job with The Home Depot Chevrolet during the day, but at night I'll be with the Outlaw team. The biggest thing is just communication. We've got the right people to do the right jobs. I'm really confident in (crew chief) Jimmy Carr and what he does with the race car and Danny during the race. He has really good organizational skills too, with what he does at the shop in keeping the place organized. He makes sure that the things that need to get done are handled. The nice thing is that I'm never more than a phone call away. If they ever have questions, all they ever have to do is call."
Why did you become a car owner in that series?
"Mainly just to help my friend Danny Lasoski. I've been in the same position he's been in as a driver, as far as at the end of the year having your helmet in one hand, your seat in the other and wondering who you were going to be driving for the next year. He's got a wife and two kids and a new house and a new race shop. We're just trying to help him a little bit financially and give him the opportunity to save some money for the future and put his kids through college. At the same time, he has the security of not having to worry about who he's going to drive for at the end of the year. He knows that as long as we're together and as long as he wants to do this, he'll always have a ride. He'll never have to worry about losing his ride and having to go look for a new job at the end of the season."