Tony Stewart has long been one of the more vocal opponents of NASCAR’s restrictor-plate racing, most famously this year at Talladega when –with tongue planted somewhere near his cheek – he apologized to the fans for not wrecking enough cars.
The reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion may feel a little better about this week’s plate race at Daytona, as Stewart has 16 wins on the 2.5-mile oval, but if he is, he’s not ready to admit it publicly.
“Well, I’m not any happier about it than I’ve always been, but we’ve had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks, especially Daytona,” Stewart said. “It’s not what you do. It’s what you do along with somebody else who decides that they’re going to follow you and help you. That’s the part that frustrates you as a driver.”
Tony Stewart made his first appearance at Daytona in 1996, and has made 70 starts at the World Center of Speed over a number of series ranging from Busch Series, Grand-Am, Sprint Cup and IROC. Despite his obvious distaste for the pack racing that restrictor-plate racing promotes, Stewart has earned wins in the July 400-mile event in 2005, 2006 and 2009 – leading 323 of a possible 480 laps in those races.
“I’m glad we’re halfway decent at it, but it’s still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does,” Stewart reported. “The race situation is a lot different from practice. You tend to have a much larger pack of cars and that makes a really big difference. It’s like pulling a pin on a grenade. You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, the car’s torn up.”
Restrictor-plate racing came to Daytona in 1988, meaning that it is the only style of NASCAR competition that Stewart has ever known on the Florida high banks. And 16 years worth of race weekends with practice and qualifying has given Stewart a healthy book of knowledge about how to approach practice at Daytona, and how you go about making your car fast in a race where speed is not always gained based upon your skill as a driver.
“You just try getting in different scenarios and try to learn if you get in the middle of the draft, what does it do?” Stewart explained. “Will it give you a push? Will it not give you a push? If you get next to this car, does it suck you up or does it slow you down? That’s why so many guys will stay out for so long in practice. It’s trial and error, but at the same time, for the race. It’s just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it.”