TONY STEWART Professionalism Means No Payback CHARLOTTE, N.C., (Aug. 21, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the ...
Professionalism Means No Payback
CHARLOTTE, N.C., (Aug. 21, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, is a professional race car driver. The key term in that sentence is professional.
Despite the much publicized on- and off-track run-ins that occurred with Stewart and Jeff Gordon two races ago at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, there will be no residual effects from that event when the Winston Cup Series visits Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway for Saturday night's running of the goracing.com 500.
The .533-mile bullring has been known for some beating and banging amongst its participants, most notably last year, when Dale Earnhardt made a controversial bump-and-run pass on Terry Labonte to take the win on the very last lap.
But this year with the points race as tight as it is, the stakes are far too high for Stewart and Gordon to put racing second to retaliation.
Following last Sunday's race at Michigan Speedway, Stewart trails point leader and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte by 450 points. Stewart stands sixth in points and Gordon is close behind in 10th with 12 races remaining. Only 154 points separate the two, while 604 points separate Gordon from Labonte.
The two drivers have been around the Winston Cup garage area long enough to know that while the competition is indeed fierce and tempers do sometimes flare, what happened two weeks ago is done. It is time to move on.
On-track incidents are pretty much expected at Bristol. After your on- and off-track incidents with Jeff Gordon two weeks ago at Watkins Glen, some are expecting to see more fireworks between you two at Bristol. Will that be the case?
"No way. What happened at Watkins Glen stayed at Watkins Glen and we're going to Bristol. They're two totally different deals. People who waste their time and spend all their energy worrying about holding grudges from week-to-week are guys that aren't concentrating on doing their jobs each week. Watkins Glen is behind us, we were at Michigan last week and now it's onto Bristol for The Home Depot team. We concentrate on each of those weekends separately and we go race. There are 34 races a year. If everyone held a grudge every time something happened, then everyone in this garage area would hate each other. When something happens, you talk about it and then it's done and over with."
Forty-three drivers vying for first place 34 weekends out of the year in a very competitive racing series. Incidents such as the one between yourself and Gordon do happen, but considering how often you guys race together, those incidents are few and far between.
"I think when something like what happened at Watkins Glen two weeks ago occurs, people make such a big deal out of it because it doesn't happen that often. Hockey players get in fights and that's part of the sport. But basketball players and baseball players occasionally get in fights, too. Jeff and I didn't get in a fight. We had an argument. We had a disagreement. Granted, our language wasn't the greatest and I do apologize for that, but it seems like in this sport, since it is such a clean sport, anytime something just a little different happens, it tends to get blown up pretty big."
How long does it take before an incident between two drivers is forgotten?
"Normally, the flight home is long enough that by the time you get home, you're over it. By the time you talk to someone about it, you're over it. It's okay for two people not to agree with each other. That's what made this country what it is."
You and Gordon tested together in Daytona (Fla.) the Tuesday after Watkins Glen. How did that go?
"He came in and sat down at a meeting with me and said, 'Are you still mad at me?' and I said 'No,' because I wasn't. That's the truth. I still don't agree with what happened, but I'm not mad about it. You can't dwell on things like that in our sport and retain a competitive edge on everybody."
Do you go into Bristol knowing that a little more give-and-take will be needed to ensure a strong finish?
"You've got to make sure that you keep the fenders on your car all day and that you're not beating up your race car. If that means a guy gets underneath you and you've got to let him go, then that's what you do. But at the same time, you still have to race hard and not give up track position and lap times because it doesn't take long before you're in lapped traffic. It's a track where you need to be really aggressive, but at the same time taking care of your equipment all day is key."
Even though Bristol is one of the more challenging race tracks on the Winston Cup circuit, you excelled there right from the start. Why?
"Probably because Bristol is similar to Winchester (Ind.) and Salem (Ind.), places where I always ran well in the open-wheel cars. It's just a half-mile track and I like tracks that size - especially with the banking Bristol has. I seem to be better on the high-banked tracks anyway."
How important is it to qualify up front at Bristol?
"It's real important. Track position is a big deal at Bristol because it's so hard to pass. It sure makes your day a lot easier if you can qualify up front and stay there all day."
How do you deal with lapped traffic at Bristol?
"You just have to be real patient. Most of the time they're pretty good about letting you go. It's hard. The track's crowded. But I felt that in traffic was where The Home Depot team excelled at times last year. We seemed to get through traffic at the right times and we were able to pull away afterward. I actually look forward to lapped traffic because I'm able to use it to my advantage."
Because Bristol is so fast and so small and things happen so quickly, are your senses heightened more so than they are at a track like Michigan or Pocono?
"You just don't have time to relax. Everything happens so fast. At the end of the day when the race is done and your adrenaline wears off, you're worn out. But when you're in the car the adrenaline's pumping, you don't get in that smooth, calm rhythm that you do at a place like Michigan or California where you've got big, sweeping corners and long straightaways. There's no time to relax. You don't get that luxury at Bristol. It's standard short track racing."
Does driver fatigue play a bigger role at Bristol than at other tracks?
"There are some other places where it's big, but you hear a lot of drivers talk about how physical Bristol is. If your car's not right it can make for a really long race. If your car's right it's not a big factor. But if it's off, it can be a problem."
Was there something, perhaps unknowingly, that better prepared you for the short tracks once you arrived at places like Bristol, Martinsville (Va.) and Richmond (Va.)?
"Probably just the fact that my background was in sprint cars, where throttle control was everything. It's more critical than it is in a Cup car. Having to go through those experiences where you're on the gas hard, using that throttle to really get around the race track, were invaluable. It showed up at Bristol, where you use your right foot a lot."