Tony Stewart Entering Bristol under the radar. ATLANTA (March 18, 2003) - Beneath the headlines of one of the greatest NASCAR finishes of all time - the last lap duel at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch - Tony...
Entering Bristol under the radar.
ATLANTA (March 18, 2003) - Beneath the headlines of one of the greatest NASCAR finishes of all time - the last lap duel at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch - Tony Stewart comes to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway for Sunday's Food City 500 second in points, only 57 markers behind NASCAR Winston Cup Series point leader Matt Kenseth.
Stewart, the reigning Winston Cup champion and driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, has scored 99 more points this year than he did last year at this time, and is tied with Kenseth for the most top-10s of the season with four. Stewart's situation is a far cry from his predicament of a year ago, when he came to Bristol 12th in points while nursing injuries sustained in an accident the previous week at Darlington.
Instead, Stewart is healthy - both in points and in body. That could prove to be an impressive combination, for Stewart has led 558 out of a possible 4,000 laps at Bristol - nearly 14 percent of all the laps Stewart could have completed at the .533-mile oval since he first ran there as a rookie in 1999. Adding to those stats is Stewart's win at the Bristol night race in 2001, and his pole for the 1999 night race.
Perhaps the only thing going against Stewart in round six of the Winston Cup schedule is daylight, for Stewart's best finish at the Bristol spring race is 15th. Stewart plans on turning that statistic around by turning the lights out on his competition when the 2,000th Winston Cup race gets underway this Sunday at Bristol.
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. I felt like I walked into a football stadium with the stands the way that they are. I never even saw the track for the first 30 seconds. I saw all the grandstands and I thought, 'Man, they put that many people in this small race track?' I didn't think it could be done. Since then they've put in even more seats. Each year it keeps getting bigger and bigger."
You've often said that Bristol is your favorite race track on the entire Winston Cup circuit. Why?
"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.
"Bristol is about what driver and which team does the best job and not about whose car is more aerodynamic or who has more horsepower. It's back to basics, really. 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 day. 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."
Was there a track from you open-wheel days that prepared you for Bristol?
"Probably both Winchester (Ind.) and Salem (Ind.) prepared me for Bristol. We used to run on the top at those two tracks, whereas at Bristol we run on the bottom. But to run 14 to 16-second laps around there is just like it was in Indiana. It brings back a lot of memories. It's one of those tracks where you just don't get a chance to take a break. You're working all the time. That's what makes you proud when you can win a race like that - running in close quarters all day long and not having any major problems. You're just so excited when you accomplish something like that."
Did your USAC racing experience help prepare you for Bristol?
"Probably, just because of 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."
What part of your body hurts the most after a race at Bristol?
"You're physically worn out, but at the same time your head hurts. It's like being inside of an aluminum trash can with all your buddies hitting on it with ball-peen hammers. It's just loud all day. The atmosphere there is great - having the grandstands all the way around the race track with people so close to the track. It's just an unbelievable feeling. But when the race is over with, you're spent. It takes me a day to recover after that race."
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."
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."
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 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 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."