CHARLOTTE, N.C., (March 20, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the ...
CHARLOTTE, N.C., (March 20, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, heads to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway to take care of some unfinished business.
The 1999 Rookie of the Year winner was in contention to win both races last year at the .533-mile bullring before circumstances proved otherwise. An accident took him out of contention in the spring event after having led 54 laps, while in the fall event, Stewart dominated early by leading 225 laps before Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte dueled their way to the finish.
Stewart showcased his short track abilities early in the 1999 campaign by scoring a pole at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in just his eighth Winston Cup start. He then followed up that pole-winning performance by landing another pole at Bristol for the August night race. Those quick runs were a prelude for things to come, as Stewart nailed his first career win in September at another short track - Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
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 were in contention to win at both Bristol races last year. Going back there with a year of experience under your belt, what will it take to reach the next level - putting The Home Depot Pontiac into Bristol's victory lane?
"We need a little bit of luck and little more experience. We were really strong through the middle section of both races, but at the end we were a little off. It's just a case where I need to be a little more aware of giving Greg (Zipadelli, crew chief) a little more heads-up, as far as keeping up with the race track and making changes versus getting really comfortable with the way my Home Depot Pontiac is at the time. Having those two races under our belt we'll give us a better idea of how the car will perform throughout the race."
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?
"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."
You've earned both of your 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 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?
"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."