TONY STEWART Too Many of "Them Racin' Deals" at Bristol ATLANTA (Aug. 20, 2008) -- The term, "Just one of them racin' deals," is sure to be uttered by more than one driver this weekend at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. The tight and fast ...
Too Many of "Them Racin' Deals" at Bristol
ATLANTA (Aug. 20, 2008) -- The term, "Just one of them racin' deals," is sure to be uttered by more than one driver this weekend at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. The tight and fast .533-mile bullring plays host to Saturday night's Sharpie 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, an event Tony Stewart won back in 2001.
But it's been a long seven years and 13 races since that win at Bristol for the driver of Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. Buoyed by only two top-fives among nine finishes of 15th or worse during that span, Stewart has seen more than his fair share of "racin' deals" at Bristol, especially of late.
In fact, "Domination Derailed" would be the most appropriate title for Stewart's recent fortunes at Bristol. In the past three Food City 500s -- NASCAR's spring visit to Volunteer Country -- Stewart has led a whopping 769 laps of the 1,510 laps available (50.9 percent). Yet, all the two-time Sprint Cup champion has to show for his efforts are finishes of 12th, 35th and 14th.
How can this be? Here's how Stewart's "racin' deals" at Bristol unfolded:
* Domination Derailed, Part I: Stewart led eight times for a race-high 245 laps in the 2006 Food City 500 and appeared ready to log his second career win at Bristol. But with 25 laps to go, his car's handling went away, dropping Stewart to 12th when the checkered flag waved.
"I am really disappointed," said Stewart after the race. "We had an awesome car all day. I felt like I ran the most patient race I have ever run at Bristol. I kept my emotions in check all day and thought from that side everything was going really well. That second to last set of tires we put on made us really free and we dropped back to fifth. Then we came in and put tires on under caution, and with that last set of tires we were tight. I couldn't turn it through the center (of the corner) at all. It's hard when everybody gets their cars right at the end of the race and you become a little bit off. It was hard to hold those guys back. So we just tried to race smart there and bring our car home in one piece."
* Domination Derailed, Part II -- For the first half and then some of the 2007 Food City 500, Stewart was performing his own rendition of the Bristol Stomp. He had led four times for a race-high 257 laps, with his nearest pursuers resigned to the fact they were running for second. But misfortune struck the No. 20 machine on lap 289 when the fuel pump cable broke. With no fuel pressure, the engine shut off, forcing Stewart to come to pit road. Crew members were able to replace the cable, but the process was lengthy. Stewart returned to the 504-lap race, albeit 25 laps down. After dominating the race, Stewart was forced to simply ride around to the finish, where he posted a gut-wrenching 35th-place result.
* Domination Derailed, Part III -- Stewart led six times for a race-high 267 laps in this year's Food City 500 at Bristol in March, but a late-race accident with Kevin Harvick relegated Stewart to a disappointing 14th-place finish. The unfortunate chain of events began when Brian Vickers crashed on lap 491. Stewart was leading with less than 10 laps to go, and crew chief Greg Zipadelli had to make a critical decision: pit and take four tires to ensure more grip and a faster car, as the tires had over 100 laps on them, or stay out on the race track and keep the lead.
Stewart and Zipadelli elected to stay out, as did second-place Denny Hamlin and third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. When the race restarted, Hamlin got by Stewart on lap 496 while Richard Childress Racing teammates Harvick and Jeff Burton, who had pitted for new tires, were fast approaching. As Harvick and Stewart battled for second, Harvick's Chevrolet slid up into Stewart's Toyota on lap 499 as they raced into turn one. Contact was made and Stewart spun backward into the SAFER Barrier on the outside retaining wall. The rear of his car was badly misshapen, but after some quick service on pit road, Stewart was able to stay on the lead lap and remain in the race to finish 14th.
With three races to go before the Chase for the Championship begins Sept. 14 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, Stewart doesn't want to jump the tracks in his return trip to Bristol. Solidly among the top-12 in points with a healthy 162-point advantage over 13th-place Clint Bowyer -- the first driver on the outside looking on of the 12-driver Chase for the Championship -- Stewart wants to finish what he's typically started at Bristol.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
You've said in the past that Bristol is your favorite track, but your five top-fives are offset by 11 finishes of 15th or worse, two of which were DNFs (Did Not Finish). That being said, is Bristol still your favorite track?
"It's one of my favorites, but Bristol is a track that's feast or famine. If you have a really good day, it's a lot of fun. But if you have one little problem, it normally makes for a very long day. We've had more long days than good days."
Now that the Chase for the Championship seems to be taking shape, have you thought about a strategy to use during the final 10-race stretch to the finish?
"If you win races the points take care of themselves. Every week when we go to the track we're going to try to win the race, and if we can't win we'll finish as high as we can and get as many points as we can. Once we do that, the points will just have to be what they are."
Are you looking to see who's ahead of you in points and who's behind you? Is there any concern about staying in the top-10 for the last three races before the Chase begins Sept. 14 at New Hampshire?
"We'll take it one day at a time. I mean, we're not worried about anything because we just have to go and do our job every week. We're not reinventing the wheel here. We just don't need to have any bad luck. That's what it really boils down to. We're not doing anything differently. You just can't afford to have a bad day. You don't have to have a great day, but you just can't afford to have a bad day."
With the pressure upon some drivers to make the cut for the Chase, will it make Bristol an even more aggressive race?
"I don't think it'll be any different. I still think when it comes to racing, guys are simply just racing. I think at the end of the day they look at the point standings, but for the most part, the whole time you're out there you're worried about winning the race or doing as well as you can. I really don't think people's mindsets will change."
Racers like Bristol's new surface, while fans don't like it as much because there seems to be less action. What do you think?
"Bristol is awesome. You can go from the bottom to the top, and with the old surface, you just couldn't do that. If you got hung on the outside, you were stuck, and if you tried to force your way back into line, that's when trouble would typically start. I don't know what it's like to watch, but from where I sit, racing at Bristol is pretty fun. You can run all over the race track, which is what's so fun about it. You can race. Guys aren't running over each other to pass each other. You can work the outside, you can work the inside, you can go and race people instead of the normal, just-bump-people-out-of-the-way-and-go-on-by style we used to have. You aren't having to root guys out of the way. We should thank everybody at Bristol Motor Speedway for doing what they did. It worked, and it worked well. I can't give it a better grade than A-plus."
Even with the new surface, things happen quickly at Bristol. Are your senses heightened more so than they are at other tracks?
"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 and 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."
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 night 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 night is key."