Atlanta II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART College Football and NASCAR Together Again in the Southeast KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Sept. 3, 2009) -- Labor Day weekend means the kickoff of college football, and thanks to the inaugural night race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, this Labor...

TONY STEWART

College Football and NASCAR Together Again in the Southeast

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Sept. 3, 2009) -- Labor Day weekend means the kickoff of college football, and thanks to the inaugural night race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, this Labor Day weekend also means the return of NASCAR racing in the Southeast.

After a five-year sojourn to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and accompanying NASCAR Nationwide Series returns to the Southeast on Labor Day weekend.

For decades, Labor Day in the Southeast meant two things: football and racing, and not necessarily in that order. The Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway was a Labor Day staple until schedule realignment in 2004, when instead of running 500 miles around a quirky, egg-shaped oval that first began hosting NASCAR races in 1950, 500 miles were instead run around a 2-mile, D-shaped oval nearly two hours outside of Los Angeles with a history dating all the way back to 1997. (Whoa, Nellie!)

Tailgate cuisine went from barbecue and corn dogs to tofu and kuskus. Needless to say, it was a seismic shift of tradition.

But after enduring an endless series of blast furnace-hot temperatures, the series' second SoCal race was mercifully moved to mid-October beginning this season, and in turn, Labor Day in the Southeast meant college football on Saturday and Sprint Cup racing on Sunday, as Atlanta was awarded the Labor Day weekend slot on the 36-race calendar.

So, after Alabama and Virginia Tech play in the College Kickoff Saturday night at the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta, fans can stay in the area and on Sunday venture an hour south to Hampton, Ga., home of the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway. There, the Pep Boys Auto 500 will kick-off under the lights at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN, less than 24 hours after its parent network, ABC, broadcasts the Alabama-Virginia Tech game.

It will be the first official night race for the Sprint Cup Series at Atlanta, as the series' unofficial night race came in 1998 when rain delayed the race deep into the night and the track's recently installed lights had to be called into service.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing, wasn't in Sprint Cup yet, as his rookie year came in 1999. But that's not to say he doesn't have experience running under the lights at Atlanta. Stewart was able to participate in a Goodyear tire test at Atlanta July 13-14 in preparation for Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500.

That bit of experience, combined with Stewart's 21 career Sprint Cup starts at Atlanta -- a mark that includes two wins, eight top-fives, 13 top-10s and 789 laps led (11.7 percent of the 6,757 laps available) -- means that the two-time Sprint Cup champion is poised to kick-off the season's fall stretch with another championship-worthy performance.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

What are your thoughts about racing at Atlanta during the Labor Day weekend instead of racing at California?

"My answer is pretty simple on this one. I don't make the race schedule, I just go wherever the race is on that weekend. We still have 36 point races. Wherever we're at on any given race weekend -- what matters to me is that we do everything we can do to win the race and get as many points as possible. NASCAR has obviously done a great job of growing this sport, and if running a night race at Atlanta on Labor Day weekend is the way to go, then who's to argue?"

You're currently leading the championship standings by 220 points over second-place Jimmie Johnson. But once the top-12 drivers in points are secured after the series' next race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, they'll all have their respective point tallies rest to 5,000, with 10 bonus points being awarded for each win during the first 26 races of the season. If Mark Martin and Kyle Busch make the Chase, they'd leapfrog you in the standings, as they each have four wins to your three. And you would also be tied with Johnson, as he also has three wins. Does that scenario bother you?

"No, not at all. Everybody understands the system. We know that if the Chase were to start tomorrow, we'd start behind. So, it's not a situation where you try to make up for it. That's when you get yourself in trouble. It's no different than gambling when you get off your game and you try to do something to get yourself back square, that's when you get in trouble. We've just got to keep doing what we've been doing. That's what got us here. It may not start us there, but for 12 weeks in a row now, we've been leading this thing because we've been consistent and up front up every week, and that's what it's going to take for the last 10 weeks, too."

What makes Atlanta different from a lot of the other 1.5-mile ovals the Sprint Cup Series visits?

"The neat thing is that the times fall off so guys move around on the racetrack more. Everybody starts at the bottom, and the fast guys normally end up right around the wall midway through a run. I like having the flexibility to be able to move around. I know that if my car isn't driving all that well in a particular spot that I have the flexibility as a driver to move around on the racetrack. You can make a difference. You can move around and help yourself as a driver, versus being committed and whatever you've got, you've got. It does make you feel better as a driver to know you have that flexibility."

With the current generation car, how fine of a line is it to find a comfort level when you're out on the racetrack at speed, particularly at Atlanta when you're running over 200 mph?

"Well I don't know that it's a fine line. I mean, either you're comfortable or you're not. Nothing is happening this year that hasn't happened for 100 years in racing. There's nothing magical or mysterious going on here. Everybody is going out every week and we're working with technology, but still at the end of the day, you've got a driver that's driving the car. No matter how fast the computer says that car is going to be, if that driver is not comfortable driving it, then they're not going to go fast. So you've got to tune these cars to the drivers and their feels, and that's what makes them go fast."

Despite the history of good racing at Atlanta, the track has struggled to sell all of its tickets, as have some other tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit. Do you think it's because of the economy, or are there other factors at play?

"Everyone wants to do their part to make it better, and I'm not sure we know exactly what that answer is. But our intentions are to do what we can to help make it a better experience for the fans every week. It's one thing for the economy to be bad, but we're competing in a time where everything is on the Internet and there are so many things for people to do. The simplest part about what we do here every weekend is we're in the entertainment industry, and we're competing against everybody else, whether it's high school football on Friday night or whatever. We're trying to figure out how we get these people to come watch us do what we love to do. And that's the challenge for track owners and sanctioning bodies. It's 'How do you make it better?' When the economy is bad like this, it's that much tougher of a challenge. You try and find more ways to make it more efficient for the people to come watch us do what we love to do every week."

-credit: shr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing