Watkins Glen: Tony Stewart preview

ATLANTA (Aug. 5, 2003) - Tony Stewart comes to the second and final road course race of the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season as the defending winner of the Sirius Satellite Radio at The Glen. Stewart started last year's 90-lap race at the ...

ATLANTA (Aug. 5, 2003) - Tony Stewart comes to the second and final road course race of the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season as the defending winner of the Sirius Satellite Radio at The Glen. Stewart started last year's 90-lap race at the 11-turn, 2.45-mile road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y., from third-place and picked up the lead from road course ace Robby Gordon on lap 25. In all, Stewart led three times for 34 laps - the most of any driver - including the final 19 to secure his 15th career Winston Cup victory.

With the win and the 14 races that followed, Stewart scored seven top-fives and 10 top-10s to bring The Home Depot Racing Team a Winston Cup championship when the season finally concluded at Homestead (Fla.). They had entered Watkins Glen seventh in points, and their win brought them to fourth in points. Eight weeks later they had the point lead, and they kept it for the final seven races.

While Stewart and Co. are in a very different points situation this year as opposed to 2002 - 13th in the standings, 732 points arrears series leader Matt Kenseth - they are still intent on defending their Watkins Glen victory. Their stats lend credence to their road racing prowess, as the team has scored three top-twos and six top-10s in their nine career road course starts. As a precursor to their Watkins Glen win, the #20 team scored their maiden road course victory at Sonoma (Calif.) in 2001.

And while only one win has been notched in 2003 - Pocono (Pa.) in June - Stewart has led a total of 511 laps in the 21 point races run thus far. In three of those races - California, Chicagoland and Indianapolis - Stewart has led the most laps for a whopping 240 of a possible 677 laps (35.5 percent). He plans on leading again at Watkins Glen, but this time joining Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin as the only drivers to win back-to-back races at Watkins Glen.

You started third in last year's race at Watkins Glen. How important was track position in getting you to victory lane?

"As the race went on we kept getting stronger and stronger. Zippy (Greg Zipadelli, crew chief) kept making changes to the car that made it better and better. We kept communicating all day and stayed calm and got ourselves in a position to win there at the end. We stuck to Zippy's game plan by getting out of the pits and getting good track position each time. The guys did a great job in the pits by allowing us to maintain our track position. That was probably the biggest thing that got us our win."

Does road racing require more finesse or more manhandling depending on where you are on the race track?

"Track position dictates where and when you need to finesse and when you need to just go at it. Track position is a big deal anywhere these days, but it's definitely a big deal at Watkins Glen. It's hard to pass there from the standpoint that there's a couple of good braking zones where you can pass. But the thing is, everyone is so even that you've got be able to out drag race them down the straightaways after you out brake them going into a corner. Getting the car to turn and handle is a big part of it, but you still have to be able to run well down the straightaway. At Sonoma, you've got to get your car handling or else it doesn't really matter how much horsepower you've got. Handling well at Watkins Glen is an important factor, but it seems like horsepower is a much bigger part of the equation versus Sonoma."

Does success at Sonoma translate into success at Watkins Glen?

"It doesn't seem to be. At Watkins Glen you don't have to finesse the throttle near as much. When you get the car turned, you can get in the gas and then stay in the gas. Watkins Glen is much faster than Sonoma. I think there are the same amount of passing opportunities, but because of the speeds that you're able to run at The Glen, brakes become a much bigger factor than I think they are at Sonoma. It's pretty much a horsepower track. It's horsepower and aerodynamics just like it is anywhere else we go. It just happens to be in the form of a road course. Sonoma has a lot less grip in the race track. You have to really be careful with the throttle there, and that puts more of the race in the driver's hands. Watkins Glen seems to be more in the crews' hands and the engine builders' hands. Obviously, there's still a job that I need to do in the race car, but I'm relying on the equipment and the crew a lot more at Watkins Glen."

How does Watkins Glen differ from Sonoma?

"Watkins Glen is really a whole new ballgame. The difference between Watkins Glen and Sonoma is that Watkins Glen is a more technical race track. The corners are a lot faster, and if you break your momentum just a little bit, it shows up big time. Right now, we're in a string of tracks where momentum is a big factor. It seems like forward bite is more of an issue at Sonoma because you've got to work so hard to get the car to turn. At Watkins Glen, you try to do as much as you can to try to keep your momentum up and not break it in any way."

You tested June 3 at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) near Danville in preparation for the Sonoma race. How similar is VIR to Watkins Glen, and can you use what was learned at VIR two months later at Watkins Glen?

"It's fairly close. It's a nice facility. It has a really long front straightaway that has a 180-degree hairpin turn. You're in second gear when you get there, so it simulates going into turn 11 at Sonoma. And it kind of simulates going into turn one at Watkins Glen. You can learn a lot from the braking aspect there. Basically, when it comes to turning left and right, whatever makes it turn left and right at VIR is what'll make it turn left and right anywhere you go."

Where are the passing zones at Watkins Glen?

"At the end of the backstretch before you come into the Bus Stop - that's a spot. And then coming back toward the pit area - the Esses right before the start/finish line, and going into turn one."

Is a race at Watkins Glen more physical than a race at Sonoma?

"No, I don't believe so. You've got a couple of long straightaways at Watkins Glen to let your body relax, stretch out your arms and catch your breath. I feel like I have more opportunities to relax a little bit at Watkins Glen."

Drivers will complain of "wheel hop" when driving road courses. What is "wheel hop" and how do you prevent it?

"Most of the time it's during the downshift period in the braking zones, where the rear wheels lock up and literally hop down the track. The worst spot at The Glen where that can happen is at the end of the front straightaway entering turn one just because you're carrying so much speed. But I'm not going to give up my secrets as to how to prevent it."

How would you describe your road racing style - refined, banzai or somewhere in between?

"Somewhere in between. There are times when you have to banzai and other times when you need to take care of your car. I'd like to think that when I'm in the part of the race where I need to be taking care of my car - I do that. And when it comes time to banzai it at the end of the race - I'm ready to do that too."

Most everyone on the Winston Cup tour has been racing on road courses for a long time. With all of the experience you have collectively, is there such a thing as a road course ringer anymore?

"I think so. You look at Robby Gordon. Every year he's a standout when we're at the road courses. Anytime you bring some of these road course guys in they're a threat. But Robby kind of stands out as the biggest threat because he runs a Winston Cup car week-in and week-out, but he's a very, very talented road racer also. So you kind of gauge yourself off him all weekend."

With only two road course races, is it tough for a team to justify focusing their resources on a road course program?

"I think we do a pretty good job of allotting the proper amount of time to the road courses. It's not that you neglect the ovals. The road courses pay the same amount of points to win that the ovals do. You've got to prepare in the same way and you've got to prepare with the same intensity. We want to win both of those races just like we want to win everywhere else we go. It's important that you do concentrate on the road courses and not take the attitude that they're not as important as the rest of the races because there are only two of them."

Does NASCAR need road racing as part of its schedule?

"I think we need dirt races, but I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon. It doesn't matter to me. All I care about is that every week I've got to go out and beat all the other guys that are out on the race track when they drop the green flag. I enjoy it. To me, it's kind of a nice change of pace. It's nice to do something different twice a year."

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Robby Gordon , Mark Martin