Tony Stewart Atlanta beckons with repeat performance ATLANTA (March 4, 2003) - Last year at this time, NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver Tony Stewart was well on his way toward rebounding from a 43rd place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Atlanta beckons with repeat performance
ATLANTA (March 4, 2003) - Last year at this time, NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver Tony Stewart was well on his way toward rebounding from a 43rd place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. He was 11th in points - 148 markers behind series leader Sterling Marlin - heading into round four of the 36-race schedule at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Stewart won the race to score his first victory in a 500-mile event, but more importantly, he jumped to fifth in points. Two more victories and 19 top-10 finishes later, Stewart was the 2002 Winston Cup champion.
One year later, Stewart returns to Atlanta in defense of his win and his title. The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet finds himself in a much more comfortable point position, as he stands fifth, 52 points arrears current leader Michael Waltrip. That doesn't mean, however, that Stewart is content.
Racking up wins is the best way to rack up points, and another win in Atlanta would do just that. Plus, with sponsor Home Depot headquartered in Atlanta, another win at the hometown track would be a fitting tribute to the 25-year-old company.
Does having won a race at Atlanta make you appreciate the track more than some of the other race 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 different is your mindset coming into Atlanta this year as opposed to last year where it was consumed with coming back from a 43rd place finish in the Daytona 500?
"It's a lot more relaxing. We're coming into Atlanta fifth in points, 52 points out of the lead, whereas last year at this time we weren't even in the top-10. I think we're 50 points ahead of where we were last year. That alone makes you feel more relaxed. And I think this Home Depot team is probably even more focused because we're not dealing with all the stresses and strains of coming back from such a big deficit. A lot of people assumed that there would be a lot more pressure in trying to defend a championship. But to me, I've defended championships before, so I have a lot of confidence as we go about defending this one. Plus, getting that first Winston Cup championship out of the way feels like a big weight has been lifted off our shoulders. We don't have to prove anything to anybody. We just have to go out and do our job each week."
How important was your win last year at Atlanta in helping you win the Winston Cup championship?
"With the exception of this year, it seems like we've normally started off the season in a point deficit, and last year was no different. When the engine let go after just the second lap of the Daytona 500, we knew that as each race went on, we had to get as many points as possible. I don't think Atlanta was a pivotal point. I don't think it was of any greater significance than our wins at Richmond (Va.) or Watkins Glen (N.Y.). It was just one race on the 36-race schedule where we had to get as many points as possible. We did that with a win, and it just happened to come early in the season."
Every car on the race track this year, whether it's a Chevy, Pontiac, Ford or Dodge, has been built under a common template. That's something you've wanted for awhile. Now that you have it, what are your thoughts?
"I'm happy. Now we all know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have the same opportunity to have the same things that everyone else has. Each particular brand of car still maintains their own identification, but at the same time it gives us as drivers the knowledge that if we beat a guy we beat him because we did a better job than they did. That's something we didn't have last year, and I'm glad to know we have it this year."
How much of a role does 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 could once again be the fastest track the Winston Cup Series visits this year. Does that concern you?
"It's still a pretty fast race track. I thought that as time went on and the track surface got older, the speeds would probably slow down some. But it's still pretty fast, 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. But I've never been concerned about speed. 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 (JGR) has six 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."