ATLANTA (March 20, 2001) - When Tony Stewart first came to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 1999, he wasn't really known as a short track driver. In fact, he wasn't really known as a stock car driver.
Stewart was, however, known as the 1997 Indy Racing League champion and as a four-time USAC champion.
If it was an open-wheeled machine on any type of race track, motorsports observers knew Stewart could drive it and drive it well. But stock cars? A big, heavy tube-framed Pontiac in NASCAR was a lot different than a lightweight, open-wheeled sprint car in USAC. Some people were skeptical that Stewart could make the transition.
Knowing that, Stewart began to wet his feet in the stock car waters in 1996, where he ran nine races for Ranier/Walsh Racing. He signed with Joe Gibbs Racing in 1997, and continued his NASCAR apprenticeship with five Busch Series starts. Twenty-two more Busch Series starts were made with Gibbs in 1998 - Stewart's final year in Busch. In 36 total starts, Stewart recorded two poles, six top-fives and seven top-10s.
Stewart seemed ready for his foray into Winston Cup in 1999, and he proved that notion by putting The Home Depot Pontiac on the outside pole for the season-opening Daytona 500. "Not bad," some garage area insiders mused, "but Daytona is a restrictor plate track. Anyone can drive fast there. Let's see what he can do at the short tracks."
When Bristol (Tenn.), the first short track race of the 1999 season arrived, Stewart showed what he could do. He qualified fourth at the .533-mile oval, led 55 laps and ran in the top-five for much of the day before getting caught up in someone else's accident. To make sure that his point had been heard, he scored his first career pole the very next weekend at the shortest track on the Winston Cup circuit - the .526-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
In three subsequent trips to Bristol, Stewart has sat on the pole, led a total of 358 laps and finished in the top-five twice. His record at Martinsville is just as impressive, as he finished sixth in last year's spring race before winning from the pole in the fall event.
In reality, Stewart's short track prowess should have come as no surprise, as many of the tracks that he visited during his four, full-time years on the USAC circuit came at tracks that were a half-mile or less.
With Bristol's Food City 500 next up on the 36-race Winston Cup schedule, Stewart looks to continue his short track shtick.
Even though Bristol is one of the more challenging race tracks on the Winston Cup circuit, you excelled there right from the start. Why?
"Probably because Bristol is similar to Winchester (Ind.) and Salem (Ind.), places where I always ran well in the open-wheel cars. It's just a half-mile track and I like tracks that size - especially with the banking Bristol has. I seem to be better on the high-banked tracks anyway."
You've earned three of your four Winston Cup poles at short tracks, and your first win came at a short track. Yet, when you came into the 1999 season, the short tracks were venues that many people thought you might struggle with. You surprised a lot of people. Did you surprise yourself?
"At some of the places. Some of 'em it didn't surprise me but some of 'em it did. We ran well at Bristol in the Busch car, but we just never had any luck - same deal that we've sometimes had with the Cup car. It was one of those places where I thought I had a good shot at running well, so I was really looking forward to it. There were some that I had been to in a Busch car, but we hadn't been very good, yet we were good in Cup with The Home Depot car. So, there were some mixed emotions heading into some of those short tracks."
Was there something, perhaps unknowingly, that better prepared you for the short tracks once you arrived at places like Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond (Va.)?
"Probably just the fact that my background was in sprint cars, where throttle control was everything. It's more critical than it is in a Cup car. Having to go through those experiences where you're on the gas hard, using that throttle to really get around the race track, were invaluable. It showed up at Bristol, where you use your right foot a lot."
Part of the reason you've raced well at Bristol is the fact that you've qualified well. How important is it to qualify up front at Bristol?
"It's real important. Track position is a big deal at Bristol because it's so hard to pass. It sure makes your day a lot easier if you can qualify up front and stay there all day."
How do you deal with lapped traffic at Bristol?
"You just have to be real patient. Most of the time they're pretty good about letting you go. It's hard. The track's crowded. But I felt that in traffic was where we excelled at times last year. We seemed to get through traffic at the right times and we were able to pull away afterward. I actually look forward to lapped traffic because I'm able to use it to my advantage."
Because Bristol is so fast and so small and things happen so quickly, are your senses heightened more so than they are at a track like Michigan or Pocono (Pa.)?
"You just don't have time to relax. Everything happens so fast. At the end of the day when the race is done and your adrenaline wears off, you're worn out. But when you're in the car the adrenaline's pumping, you don't get in that smooth, calm rhythm that you do at a place like Michigan or California where you've got big, sweeping corners and long straightaways. There's no time to relax. You don't get that luxury at Bristol. It's standard short track racing."
Does driver fatigue play a bigger role at Bristol than at other tracks?
"There are some other places where it's big, but you hear a lot of drivers talk about how physical Bristol is. If your car's not right it can make for a really long race. If your car's right it's not a big factor. But if it's off, it can be a problem."
Lots of new tracks have been built in the last decade, but they've all been a mile or over a mile in length. Why do you think no one has built another short track like Bristol?
"I'm not sure you could build another Bristol. But I think the biggest reason is that track owners and promoters are trying to build bigger race tracks so that they can get more seats around 'em."
Would you like to see more short tracks on the schedule?
"I'd like to see some new short tracks come up. Everybody that's building new facilities are building great facilities, but it would be nice to see someone build a smaller track that could hold the same amount of people like they do at Bristol. But everybody's building these big, huge monster venues."