TONY STEWART No Rest for the Weary ATLANTA (March 5, 2008) -- Ready or not, round four of the 36-race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is upon us. The days and weeks leading into this weekend's stop at Atlanta Motor Speedway have been ...
No Rest for the Weary
ATLANTA (March 5, 2008) -- Ready or not, round four of the 36-race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is upon us. The days and weeks leading into this weekend's stop at Atlanta Motor Speedway have been harried, and for some, a bit hurtful.
After 10 days spent in Daytona Beach, Fla., for Speedweeks, teams journeyed west to Fontana, Calif. And after a rain-postponed race on Monday, picked up stakes and trekked to Las Vegas, site of last weekend's Sprint Cup race. But teams did not come straight home to North Carolina. Instead, they visited Phoenix International Raceway for a two-day test before taking red-eye flights back to the Charlotte-area so they could spend all day Wednesday preparing for Atlanta.
And what if you tore up a perfectly good race car at Las Vegas? Tough. That's why they build backup race cars. And what if you happened to be the driver of one of those torn up race cars? Tough. That's why you make the big bucks, and why you're nursing some soreness and general bruising while turning laps on a Monday and Tuesday at the desert oval in Phoenix.
That was the case for Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Stewart was running solidly in the top-10 Sunday at Las Vegas before a blown right-front tire on lap 108 sent him hard into the SAFER Barrier that lines the outside retaining wall.
Stewart earned a 43rd-place finish and some nice bruises for his early exit. But that didn't mean his tough day at the office excused him from punching his time card out in Phoenix. The two-time Sprint Cup champion grimaced through 14 hours of testing at Phoenix before getting a day of rest on Wednesday.
Hopefully, Stewart enjoyed his day off, for Thursday is busy, albeit away from the track. The Home Depot driver flew in for a full day at Home Depot's Atlanta-based headquarters. When the day is done, it'll be dark before Stewart is able to clap out for the evening and mentally prepare himself for three days back in a race car.
At least at Atlanta, it's one less car. After opening the season with three straight weeks of double-duty by competing in Sprint Cup and the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Stewart is only competing in Cup at Atlanta. And while he might like to continue on in the Nationwide Series, for back-to-back wins at Daytona and Fontana have him atop the championship driver standings, Stewart knows that the downtime away from a race car will be a welcome reprieve for a body and mind bludgeoned by the modern-day schedule of a Sprint Cup driver.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
After two hard hits in two days last weekend at Las Vegas, as you endured crashes in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday and the Sprint Cup race on Sunday, how are you feeling, especially after testing for two days at Phoenix?
"The test was fine. Obviously, I battled through a lot of soreness, but the (right) foot's just bruised and I got a lot of bruises everywhere else, but that's just a part of this deal. By the weekend, it'll be healed, or almost healed, so it's no different than a normal racing rheumatism, as the doctors call it, and we'll be just fine. We're race car drivers. We're tough. It's no different than anybody else who hit the wall. We're all probably sore from this weekend, but we'll all be fine for this weekend and I'm no different."
After running at Fontana and Las Vegas with the current generation race car, have you found a lot of difference in terms of how the cars drive in comparison to the older generation-type race car you drove there last year?
"The common variable we've seen everywhere we've went on these bigger tracks is that they're a lot freer on entry and exit and tighter in the center of the corners. Whether it's Atlanta or anywhere else where we run a mile-and-a-half or bigger track, those are the variables that we've been fighting. I don't think this weekend at Atlanta will be any different."
Did this current generation race car handle the same way at Fontana and Las Vegas than it did when you tested it at Atlanta late last October?
"Yeah, it was pretty much in line with what we've had the last couple of weeks. I think everybody's cars will probably drive better than what they did at the test at Atlanta just because we've now had some time to work with them a little bit, and hopefully, that'll help make us more comfortable in our return to Atlanta."
Atlanta is the fastest track on the Sprint Cup circuit. Does that hold any additional challenges for drivers?
"I don't think there is anything to that. Whatever happens, happens. Anything can happen at whatever race track. Something weird happens to somebody every week. I don't think it is because of where you go -- it's just the sport of racing. Weird things happen. Nobody can say why they happen or why they happen more at some tracks more than others. Stuff just happens. That's why we keep racing."
What are the keys to being successful at Atlanta?
"You just have to constantly adjust your race car. Atlanta cools off so much and changes so much that you always have to be on top of your setups. You need to make sure that you have enough adjustability as the day goes on. You don't want to get your car so good at the first half of the day that it gets too tight at the end of the day. You almost have to be a little bit on the loose side to really be good at the end of the day."
What makes Atlanta different from a lot of the other 1.5-mile ovals the Sprint Cup Series visits?
"Well, you move around a lot more. The surface gets more and more abrasive each time we go there. The neat thing is that the times fall off so guys move around on the race track more. Everybody starts at the bottom, and the fast guys normally end up right around the wall midway through a run. That is something that is different than Charlotte and some of the other tracks on the circuit. Fast guys ran at the top and at the bottom at Charlotte. Other than that, it's shaped exactly like the other ones are."
Do you like having the ability to try different grooves at Atlanta?
"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 race track. You can make a difference. It's like Michigan where 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."
Greg Zipadelli, crew chief of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
How taxing has the last two months been in terms of getting ready for Daytona and then a West Coast swing to races at California and Las Vegas before ending with a test at Phoenix?
"You look at it and try to figure out how you get trucks lined up and cars out to Las Vegas and then to Phoenix for the test. It's hard to get everything figured out. For us, we all have test trucks and we all have three drivers per team, basically, with two primaries per team and then a test truck driver, and we're fortunate enough to have the resources to get things done. But for some of the team that are a little less fortunate than we are, I can't imagine how they've gotten it done.
"It's really crazy and I wonder why we're doing all that we're doing, but I guess when it's all said and done, we got a lot of stuff out of the way and hopefully it makes the middle part of the year a little more enjoyable because we've got a lot of our testing out of the way. At least, that's the way I'm looking at it."
Have these West Coast races and the test at Phoenix given you information you can use this weekend at Atlanta, but also at future weekends on the schedule?
"I hope so, but this is all new -- taking this CoT (Car of Tomorrow) to these mile and mile-and-a-half ovals. Obviously, there's a lot to learn, but so far, so good. I thought Daytona was the best we've ever been at Speedweeks. We're certainly not going back to what we had, so we've got to figure out what works for this car and what gets Tony comfortable. That's the biggest thing -- us coming up with some packages that we feel comfortable unloading with at the track. Then, we can kind of tune and adjust from there."