Bristol: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart A Matter of Perspective ATLANTA (March 23, 2004) - For the guy who wins a 500-lap race at Bristol, he's usually pretty happy. Sure, the race was long, but the satisfaction of holding a big trophy and an even bigger paycheck ...

Tony Stewart
A Matter of Perspective

ATLANTA (March 23, 2004) - For the guy who wins a 500-lap race at Bristol, he's usually pretty happy. Sure, the race was long, but the satisfaction of holding a big trophy and an even bigger paycheck makes the beating and banging that accompanies racing at Bristol well worth it.

But for the guy who doesn't win - the guy who in the last four Bristol races has an average finish of 22nd - Bristol is an aggravating, temper-fueling bowl of concrete that is best viewed in his rental car's rearview mirror.

Meet Tony Stewart, the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, who fortunately or unfortunately, is both guys.

Stewart won the 2001 Bristol night race, leading the final 68 laps to capture his 12th career Nextel Cup victory. Stewart was elated, saying "This is one of the most satisfying wins of my career. This was more of a personal triumph for me than anything."

But since that win, Stewart has endured nothing but aggravation at Bristol.

Despite leading 74 laps in the 2002 spring race, Stewart had to turn the wheel over to Todd Bodine, as pain sustained from injuries the week before at Darlington (S.C.) was too much to endure. The result was a 15th place finish. In the series' return visit in August, a ruptured oil line stemming from an incident with Jerry Nadeau put Stewart three laps down. After running as high as fifth earlier in the race, Stewart finished 24th.

Bad luck continued to plague Stewart at the .533-mile oval in 2003, as the constant sheet metal crunching that is a staple of Bristol ended Stewart's day in the spring race 13 laps from the finish. His overheating engine earned him a 26th place result. And in the most recent visit to Bristol - last year's night race - Stewart finished 23rd after being punted into the wall on lap 160.

While the aforementioned tales make for great highlight reel fodder for those promoting Sunday's Food City 500, Stewart and Co. plan to keep their recent disappointments at Bristol squarely in the past. Five races into the season, the #20 Home Depot Racing Team is off to their best start ever - third in the championship standings, a mere 35 points behind series leader Matt Kenseth. After enduring two years of famine at Bristol, Stewart is ready to feast in the Food City 500.

You've said that Bristol is your favorite track. Is that still the case?

"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. Lately, we've had a couple of long days there. Obviously, we're looking to change that."

Was there a track from your 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."

How hard is it to make consistent laps at Bristol?

"It depends on where you're at in the pack. If you're in the front of the pack, it's normally fairly easy to be consistent. But if you're in the back of the pack fighting traffic, it's hard to be consistent because you're always having to adjust for somebody else."

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 do anything special at Bristol to make yourself more comfortable inside the race car?

"No, you just try to relax. That's basically the biggest thing. You just try to settle in and realize that it's a long day. You don't want to use too much energy too early. You have to constantly work on your car and be patient all day."

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."

Because things happen so 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."

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 has excelled at times. In past races, we seemed to get through traffic at the right times and we were able to pull away afterward. Sometimes 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."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:

You had a test at Bristol scheduled for March 17, but you elected to cancel it because the temperature was about 30 degrees colder than what you expect the temperature to be this weekend. In canceling the test, did you reason that no information was better than bad information?

"Tests are so valuable, and we only had a chance of getting a half or three-quarters of a day of testing in because of the weather, so we just decided it wasn't worth using up a test date. It was so cold, and the cars that were out there were quite a bit slower than the cars that were there the week before, so I don't know how much we could've learned."

How much of a role does track temperature play in chassis setup?

"Well, you look at Atlanta, where from the start of the race to the end of the race there was a difference of about 12 or 14 degrees. And as we all saw, the car handled a lot differently toward the end of the race than it did at the beginning of the race. If we had tested at Bristol, we would've been looking at a difference of about 25 or 30 degrees when we go back there this weekend. That's a considerable difference.

"We just try to get the car balanced. If you can place some spring rubbers here and there where you can get them in or out during pit stops over the course of a race, you look for the most grip you can get. You try not to favor one end of the race track more than the other. That way, when the track does change, your car doesn't change as much."


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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Todd Bodine , Jerry Nadeau