Late Season Surge Continues at Bristol ATLANTA (Aug. 20, 2002) - Since joining the NASCAR Winston Cup Series as a rookie in 1999, Tony Stewart has always enjoyed a late season surge that saw him rack up a bevy of wins and climb upward in the ...
Late Season Surge Continues at Bristol
ATLANTA (Aug. 20, 2002) - Since joining the NASCAR Winston Cup Series as a rookie in 1999, Tony Stewart has always enjoyed a late season surge that saw him rack up a bevy of wins and climb upward in the championship point standings. The 2002 season is proving no different.
Stewart enters Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway as the defending race winner along with a win and a runner-up finish in the last two Winston Cup races. Stewart is currently fourth in points, a meager 84 markers behind series lead Sterling Marlin.
While Marlin has held the point lead since the second race of the season at Rockingham (N.C.), Stewart has weathered a roller-coaster season that has seen The Home Depot Pontiac driver go from 43rd in points following the season-opening Daytona 500 to fifth three weeks later at Atlanta, only to move back and forth between seventh and fifth for 10 straight weeks before winning at Watkins Glen (N.Y.). With that win two weeks ago and the strong second-place finish last Sunday at Michigan, Stewart's fourth-place standing and 84-point gap between himself and Marlin is the closest he has been to the point lead all season.
Perhaps even more daunting to his competitors is the fact that of Stewart's 15 career Winston Cup victories, seven have come during the four-month span between August and November - two of which were at night, at short tracks - Richmond (Va.) in 1999 and Bristol last year.
Past history, recent momentum and statistical jargon all point in Stewart's favor for the second to last night race of the 2002 season - the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
You've often said that Bristol is your favorite race track on the entire Winston Cup circuit. Why?
"Bristol is about what driver and which team does the best job and not about who's car is more aerodynamic or who has more horsepower. It's back to basics, really. We'll take a seven-year-old Pontiac body and put it up against the latest from Dodge and Ford and it won't make any difference. You won't hear anybody talking about aero pushes or downforce or dyno numbers. You'll hear them talking about handling and getting up on that wheel and making sure you keep the fenders on the car all night. It's nice to know that we can throw out some of those variables from the equation for one week and worry about beating guys because we did a better job of setting our race car up and I did a better job driving. If you can do that, it doesn't matter what you're driving."
"It's where the most exciting racing is, for sure. I don't know how many people they pack in that place, but you know it's always packed. The racing is great, so I don't know why all these 1.5-mile, cookie-cutter race tracks are being built. How many of those do we go to? Six, seven, eight? It's pretty unimaginative. Bristol is where it's at. It's a driver's track, plain and simple. There's no politicking, just driving."
How big of a win was your trip to victory lane in last year's night race?
"It was one of the most satisfying. I don't think it was the biggest. I still think the biggest was beating Dale Earnhardt in last year's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona (Fla.). It would have been nice to have beat him again that night at Bristol, but it still meant a lot just to win there. It was more of a personal triumph for me than anything. I've always liked Bristol and I've always wanted to win there. I'm just glad we had the opportunity to do that last year."
What were your thoughts the first time you came to Bristol?
"The first time I went there I was amazed. I went there in '96 with Harry Ranier's Busch Series team. We came through that gate and got down into the infield, I looked up and never saw a sight like what I saw that day, and each year it's kept getting bigger and bigger. It has always been my favorite track. Anytime anybody has ever asked me what my favorite track was, I've always said, 'Bristol.' It's just because it's exciting. You can't rest there at all. You can be patient, but you can't rest.
"It's one of those places where there are so many variables and so many things that can go wrong during your race that everything has to be absolutely perfect for you to even stay in the top-five. If you have a perfect day you might run fifth. It's awesome when you can come away with a win like we did last year."
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 day is key."
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. It seems like you've got to work lapped traffic at Bristol more than you have to work lapped traffic anywhere else we go."
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 night a lot easier if you can qualify up front and stay there during the race."
Because Bristol is so fast and so small and things happen so quickly, 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 night 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 or you're nursing an injury, 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."
You seem to thrive during night races, whether they're at Bristol, Richmond (Va.) or Charlotte (N.C.). Why?
"I'm nocturnal basically, so I love the night races. For me, the best hours of the day are when it's dark. After I sleep into 11 o'clock in the morning, I just feel a little more fresh when the green flag drops for a night race. I'm a lot sharper and a lot wider awake at night."
The championship is pretty wide open. You and a lot of other drivers are still very much in the running. Do you think about that with still 13 races remaining in the season?
"No. Winning races is all we care about, to be honest. If you win races the points will take care of itself. There are too many guys and too many variables to even think about point racing. No one really has anything to protect. Everyone has to go out there and try to win as many races as they can. Everyone needs the points because there are just too many good teams bunched together at the top of the standings for anyone to start going conservative."