ATLANTA (Oct. 23, 2003) - Tony Stewart is at it again. His typical late season surge is in full swing as the driver of the ...
ATLANTA (Oct. 23, 2003) - Tony Stewart is at it again. His typical late season surge is in full swing as the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series heads into the fourth to last race of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In the past five races Stewart has finished no lower than fourth, and that includes a win two weeks ago at Atlanta's sister race track - Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. The recent run is merely a microcosm of Stewart's five-year Winston Cup career, as five of Stewart's 17 career victories have come during the last two months of season.
Atlanta is a venue where Stewart has an excellent opportunity to add to that number. Since winning there in March of 2002, Stewart has finished fourth and fifth in his two subsequent trips to the ultra-fast 1.54-mile oval. Add to that the performance of Joe Gibbs Racing - which thanks to Stewart's teammate Bobby Labonte has a total of seven wins and two poles at Atlanta - and Stewart becomes an easy pick for racing prognosticators.
With five straight top-five finishes in as many weeks, do you have added confidence coming into Atlanta?
"Yeah, Atlanta's always a big weekend for us with Home Depot's headquarters being down there. It's where I got my first 500-mile win and I have a lot of friends down there. It's a track I like. It's a driver's track even though it's one-and-a-half miles and fast. It's still one of those places where tires give up, which is good, and it gives us a chance to move around on the race track and actually race each other."
What makes you so good in the last part of the season?
"I wish I knew, because if I did, I'd make it start at the beginning of the season and carry it through the whole year. The only thing I can think of is, with my background in Sprint Cars and Midgets, I was used to tracks being slippery and hot, and it seems like early in the year, clear up through May and early June, the tracks are so cool they retain a lot of grip. Everybody is fast when they have a lot of grip. It's kind of like a sticky dirt track. Everybody's fast when it's sticky, but when it gets dry-slick and blows off, the guys that really get their teams working good and their cars going good go to the front. At this time of the year, all the heat from the summer is still in the track, and when the tracks get slippery and the tires do fall off, those are the tracks where we really go good. You have to constantly adjust your line, adjust where you're lifting, where you're getting in the gas and how you're getting in the corner."
Can your win at two races ago at Charlotte be transferred to Atlanta?
"Well, they're different places in all reality. Charlotte has bumps that Atlanta doesn't have. At Atlanta you can take The Home Depot Chevy from the wall to the apron and run anywhere you want, basically - not so much at Charlotte. They each have the same layout, but each of them has their own personality. Some things do apply, but some things don't. So that means that there aren't any guarantees on what you think you might have going into Atlanta."
Does having won a race at Atlanta make you appreciate the track more than some of the other tracks you visit?
"Atlanta is a fun track. Of all the mile-and-a-half ovals we go to, Atlanta has the most personality as far as the race track is concerned. You can run all the way down on the white line when the tires are fresh, but as you get some laps on the tires you start moving up the race track. You can end up running three-wide, with the guy on the outside running right up against the wall. The track is fun because you're able to move around a lot."
How much of a role do aerodynamics play at Atlanta?
"A lot, but the good thing is that even though aero is a big issue there, the track widens out quite a bit. Twenty laps into a run, you've got guys who will run right down on the line on the bottom of the track and you've got guys who will run clear up by the wall. It's a track that gives you the kind of flexibility that we have at Michigan, to where however your car is driving, you can move around on the race track and find a spot that helps you and your car not be so aero-sensitive."
When Atlanta was re-paved in 1997 and drivers were qualifying in excess of 197 mph, it was thought that speeds would slowly come down as the surface aged. But that doesn't seem to have happened, and Atlanta is one of the fastest tracks the Winston Cup Series visits. Does that concern you?
"It's fast, but it's not scary fast. You run really quick there, but the track is really wide. If you make a bobble, you don't have to hold your breathe. I ran a 237 mph average at Indianapolis during rookie orientation for the (1996) Indy 500, so going fast doesn't bother me in the least bit."
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. And because the track is such a momentum race track, if you're a little bit off it seems like you're way off. If your stuff isn't right, you can't expect to run with the pack all day. You've got to be on your game, because it seems like there's always two or three guys who always get it right. And everybody's who's just a little bit off - it shows up big time on the clock."
Between you and Bobby Labonte, Joe Gibbs Racing has seven wins and two poles in Winston Cup competition at Atlanta. What is it that makes JGR so good at Atlanta?
"I don't think we really have any secrets. It's just that Bobby has always run well there. I finally got my first win there last year. But there are a lot of really good teams that run well at Atlanta. It's not just us. Hendrick, Childress, Yates - they all run well at Atlanta. And with the caliber of drivers in Winston Cup, a team can hit the right setup and win on any given weekend."
Explain a lap around Atlanta.
"The frontstretch is a D-shape, so you're running a natural arc all the way into (turn) one, but you kind of drop down into one when you turn the car into the corner. There are a couple of bumps that tend to upset the car, and you really have to work on your shock package on Friday and Saturday to get your car nice and stable through there. But as soon as you go through those bumps and you get the car settled down, you're right back in the gas, carrying a lot of momentum off of (turn) two and down the backstretch right into (turn) three. You can carry a lot more momentum into three than you feel like you can, but that can be what hurts you later in a run because you're abusing the tires by getting into the corner so hard. But once you get to the bottom of three, the entrance into (turn) four comes up quick. It's a little bit tight getting in there, so you have to be careful and pay close attention to what's happening around you. Atlanta is fast because it allows you to be on the gas so often."