ATLANTA (March 6, 2001) - Tony Stewart, driver of the ...
ATLANTA (March 6, 2001) - Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, heads into Sunday's Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway fresh of a respectable 12th place finish in the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
After a tough outing in the season-opening Daytona 500 that left Stewart 36th in points, the third-year Winston Cup driver has put together two solid races, vaulting him into ninth-place in the championship point standings. Stewart's fourth-place run at Rockingham (N.C.) along with his 12th place effort in Las Vegas has netted the 29-year-old a total of 292 points out of a possible 370, nearly 79 percent of all points possible.
But the 1.54-mile Atlanta oval has been somewhat of a nemesis for The Home Depot team, as they failed to finish both races last year. It wasn't for lack of performance, as in each event the #20 machine was a legitimate top-10 contender, but accidents led to finishes of 34th and 38th, respectively, in the spring and fall races.
Despite the outcome of The Home Depot team's Atlanta outings last season, Stewart and Co. are confident in their abilities to run well, and even more importantly, finish well in the Cracker Barrel 500.
You've always been able to run well at Atlanta, but finishing well has been another matter. What areas are you and the team working on to improve your performance at Atlanta?
"During my rookie year, Atlanta was only my fourth Winston Cup race. We didn't have a lot of time in a Cup car yet, and to be able to run 11th was a good run for The Home Depot team. We had a top-five car when we came back in the fall, but we had a pit stop late in the race that cost us. I thought that we would be better last year just from the standpoint that we had more experience. We ran better, but we didn't finish better. We ended up wrecked in both races last year. We're confident that we can run well at Atlanta, because we've shown that we could do just that in our last couple of starts there. We just need to keep the car in one piece and make it to the finish. If we can do that, I think we'll be all right."
Your teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Bobby Labonte, has enjoyed a lot of success at Atlanta Motor Speedway. How has the success of the #18 team helped you at Atlanta?
"You look at Bobby's record there and not only do they qualify well, but they race well. It makes the transition for me a lot easier because they have great notes for Atlanta. I know that when I go out in my Home Depot Pontiac, the setup is going to be fairly close to Bobby's to begin with."
Speeds at Atlanta are in the mid-190 mph range. Is that too fast, and is there any margin for error?
"It's a pretty fast race track. I think as time goes on and the track surface ages, the speeds will probably slow down some. Right now it's a pretty fast race track, and when you do hit the wall you hit it pretty hard. There's not much room for error simply because of how fast the track is. The faster you go the more race track you need to get your car back under control."
What's the trickiest part to making a quick lap at Atlanta?
"It's got its set of bumps. You need to make sure your car gets over the bumps but still turns well. Normally, if you turn after you hit the bumps, you're tight. If you turn before you hit the bumps, you're loose. Just finding that common balance - getting the car over the bumps but having it turn at the same time - that's what you're shooting for."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac:
How do you set your car up for 500 miles at Atlanta?
"We get our driver good and comfortable and run as consistently as we can through a full fuel run. When it comes to pit strategy, we don't really do two-tire stops. Tony doesn't like it, and every time we've done one, it never seems to help us out. We just try to make the car handle as best as it can. About the only strategy that works out there is fuel mileage at the end of the race."
- Mike Arning