Atlanta II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART College Football and NASCAR Together Again in the Southeast KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Sept. 2, 2010) - Labor Day weekend means the kickoff of college football, and thanks to the second annual night race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Labor Day...

College Football and NASCAR Together Again in the Southeast

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Sept. 2, 2010) - Labor Day weekend means the kickoff of college football, and thanks to the second annual night race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, 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 returned to the Southeast on Labor Day weekend for last year's inaugural night race at Atlanta.

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 last 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 Louisiana State University and the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill play in the College Kickoff Saturday night in an SEC/ACC matchup 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 Emory Healthcare 500 will kick-off under the lights at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN, less than 24 hours after its parent network, ABC, finishes its broadcast of the LSU-UNC game.

It will be the just the second official night race for the Sprint Cup Series at Atlanta, for well before last year's Labor Day visit, the series' held an unofficial night race at Atlanta in 1998 when rain delayed what used to be the season finale 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 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 prior to last year's race and, of course, he logged 500 miles worth of track time in the 2009 Pep Boys 500.

That bit of experience, combined with Stewart's 23 career Sprint Cup starts at Atlanta - a mark that includes two wins, eight top-fives, 13 top-10s and 790 laps led (10.6 percent of the 7,423 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 for Stewart-Haas Racing:

What are your thoughts about racing at Atlanta during the Labor Day weekend instead of racing at California, or Darlington for that matter?

"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 sixth in the championship standings with a healthy 287-point margin over 13th-place Jamie McMurray - the first driver on the outside looking in at the elite, 12-driver Chase for the Championship with only Atlanta and Richmond (Va.) International Raceway remaining before the 10-race Chase begins. With a 19th-place finish or better at Atlanta, you'll clinch a spot in the Chase for the sixth time in your career. But once the top-12 drivers in points are secured after the series' next race at Richmond, 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 Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and McMurray make the Chase, they'll leapfrog you in the standings, as each of them has won at least one race and you haven't won any. 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."

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."

What do you expect when you come to Atlanta?

"I like racing there. It's definitely a driver's track. That's why we love coming to Atlanta. I hope they never repave it. That will be the one thing that will kill it. If they have to repave it, it will be out of necessity, not because of desire from us. That's what makes this place fun is the fact that you're going to move around from the bottom to the top every segment of the race. You are, at some point, going to have to move around and try to find a spot to make your car better. That's what makes it so much fun being there."

How fine of a line is it to find a comfort level when you're out on the racetrack at speed, particularly at Atlanta where 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."

-source: shr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing