CHARLOTTE, N.C., (April 3, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the ...
CHARLOTTE, N.C., (April 3, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, returns to the site of his first career pole when he visits Martinsville (Va.) Speedway for Sunday's running of the Goody's Body Pain 500.
En route to winning the 1999 Rookie of the Year title, Stewart surprised everyone - including himself, when he set the track qualifying record. In just his eighth career start, Stewart wheeled his Home Depot Pontiac around Martinsville's .526-mile oval in 19.875 seconds at an average speed of 95.275 mph.
Taking the pole at Martinsville would be just one of the many milestones that the Columbus, Ind., native would achieve in 1999. Stewart turned in another pole-winning performance at Bristol (Tenn.) in August, before notching his first win in his 25th start at the September Richmond (Va.) race. It was the first time a driver had won a race in his rookie season since the late Davey Allison in 1997.
Following back-to-back wins at Phoenix on Nov. 7 and Homestead (Fla.) on Nov. 14, Stewart moved to a league all his own, becoming the first driver in Winston Cup history to win three races during his rookie campaign.
Talk about the first time you tested at Martinsville.
"I hated it because I really struggled there. The only reason I even like going there is the people. They make it fun. But racing at Martinsville - it's like racing around a parking lot with a curb around it."
What changed between the first time you tested there and the time you went there and sat on the pole?
"My magical crew chief - Greg 'Houdini' Zipadelli. I have no idea what he did to that car, and I don't even want to know what he did. But I want him to do it every time we go back there."
You surprised a lot of people when you sat on the pole last year. Did you surprise yourself?
"Yeah, I did. The great thing about it was that at least for one day, I didn't hate Martinsville near as bad. When we went back we were really competitive right off the truck. The Home Depot Pontiac drove a lot better because the guys worked really hard on it. They learned a lot in the test; I learned a lot in the test. They definitely made a bigger impact with the way we ran coming back than I ever did. They were responsible for 80 percent of why we went faster and I may have been responsible for 20 percent. I was glad I had them on my side."
How much satisfaction did you and the team take in proving any of your naysayers wrong?
"I think everybody categorized us as being a team that would struggle with the short tracks. But the pole opened everybody's eyes, and they said, 'Hey, they can do this too.' Our race performance wasn't what we wanted, but at least we had qualifying to show the media and the fans that we were someone to be reckoned with."
From a driver's standpoint, what's the most important part of racing at Martinsville?
"You obviously don't want to use any more brake than you have to. We'll work on getting The Home Depot Pontiac driving well up off the corner all day, because forward bite is a big issue."
Where are the prime passing spots at Martinsville?
"Anywhere that you can get by a guy. I mean, I've seen guys pass on the outside and guys pass on the inside. Anywhere there's an opportunity to pass, you need to take it. At the beginning of a run, you can make some moves on the outside if your car is working. The nice thing is that the track's a pretty racy race track - for a parking lot."
Is Martinsville like Bristol (Tenn.) when it comes to dealing with lapped traffic?
"It's probably worse there than it is at Bristol from the standpoint that the cars are so tightly bunched. Normally the traffic isn't terrible there. The guys who are a lap down are pretty good about letting you by."
How does a qualifying lap differ from a race lap at Martinsville?
"Probably just with the chassis setup. You drive it about the same."
Is Martinsville similar to any track you've raced on before?
"Yeah, probably Calistoga, Calif. I think it's a strip mall now, so maybe that explains why Martinsville feels like a parking lot. It was the same thing. It had really long straightaways and really tight corners. The same things applied when it came to driving technique. It was easy to use too much brake there, and it was always hard to get forward bite. It was just on a smaller scale."
Do you have a love/hate relationship with Martinsville?
"I haven't loved it yet. I still hate it. If it's a love/hate relationship, then we're missing the love part of the equation. Like I said, the people make it fun because they're really enthusiastic. That makes racing there fun. But the track is just a tricky place to get around." k