TONY STEWART Hungry for Food City 500 ATLANTA (March 24, 2005) - An off-weekend at any point during the marathon-like NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season is a welcome reprieve. There are only three of them, with the Easter holiday marking ...
Hungry for Food City 500
ATLANTA (March 24, 2005) - An off-weekend at any point during the marathon-like NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season is a welcome reprieve. There are only three of them, with the Easter holiday marking off-weekend number two.
But as those who comprise the traveling circus that is NASCAR prop their feet up for a rare Saturday and Sunday at home, their ability to relax only reaches a certain point. That's because on Fri., April 1, teams unload their shiny race cars at what is arguably the toughest race track on the Nextel Cup circuit - Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway - and hope for nary an April Fool's surprise.
The tight and fast .533-mile oval instills a feeling of love or hate amongst those who whip 3,400-pound race cars around its 36 degrees of banking. The track's layout is a challenge all by itself, but add 43 race cars to the mix at speeds averaging 125 mph and you get the toughest ticket in town. It provides great theatre for the 160,000 fans in attendance, during and after the race. But depending on what driver you talk to and when, Bristol can be their favorite venue, or their favorite venue to convert into a bass pond.
Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, sums it up best: "Bristol is a track that's feast or famine." And Stewart should know. He won the 2001 Bristol night race, and in his four Bristol starts leading up to that contest, he led 413 of an available 2,000 laps (just over 20 percent). But in his six starts since that Bristol stomp, Stewart has not finished better than 15th, seeing strong drives thwarted by Bristol's unrepentant circumstances.
So as Stewart spends his off-weekend in the role of track owner at his latest acquisition - Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio - the relaxation that comes with being involved in grassroots motorports is tempered by his impending trip to Bristol.
Ironically, the April 3 race is called the Food City 500. And it's there where Stewart hopes his Bristol famine ends with a Food City 500 feast.
How would you assess your season to this point?
"We're only four races into it, so I'd say it's still a little early to tell. I think we're getting a direction on what we need to change to be better. We had a good run at Daytona, a terrible run at California, a really, really good car at Las Vegas, and then a terrible run at Atlanta. We've got some good things going for us, but we also have some areas we need to work on. The season is still young and there's a lot of racing yet to go."
While still early in the season, do you look at the points to see who your competition is, or if there are some fellow competitors who are struggling, who your competition isn't?
"With this format you worry about the guys you think are going to be in the top-10. There are guys you think you need to worry about and there are guys you don't think you have to worry about. But you can never write anybody off - not until you get past the 26th race weekend and you know who's in and who's out."
The new impound procedure that was used at Atlanta will be used again at Bristol - where you practice and qualify on Friday and don't anything with the race car until Sunday's race. Do you find it difficult to get back in your race car after a full day off?
"It's no different than it is on the weekends where we have 'Happy Hour' before a companion race on Saturday. Instead of waiting 24 hours before you get in your race car you're waiting 48 hours. It's no big deal. It's the same for everybody. I almost feel like we get more worthwhile practice time under the new format than we did with the old format because we get to run the car during the time of day that we're going to race."
You've said in the past that Bristol is your favorite track, but with a best finish of 15th in your last six starts there, 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."
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."
There always seems to be a ton of contact at Bristol. How do you balance patience with aggressiveness?
"I think the contact you see at Bristol is more from being so close to one another while going so fast. All it takes is a small bobble on someone's part to cause a chain reaction of guys bumping into each other. It doesn't necessarily cause a wreck, but it gets guys beating and banging on one another. It's not out of necessity. It's just the set of circumstances you have there. Bristol is a place where you have to really be careful. You have to be very patient. We all run so fast there as a group that you really have to take your time when you go to pass somebody. If somebody gets someone else hung out on the outside, it's easy to just tuck in behind the guy on the inside and follow him on by. That's the easiest way to pass cars at Bristol. If you have a good handling car, you've got to take care of it. Taking care of your fenders is the biggest variable in the equation."
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."
Is racing at Bristol the closest thing to Sprint car racing?
"The two places that stand out in my mind that's like Bristol are Salem (Ind.) and Winchester (Ind.). Both of those tracks were half-mile ovals with high banks. You ran at the top of those tracks versus the bottom, which is where we run at Bristol. The racing was so fast it was a hold-your-breathe-type situation. The types of cars that we were running at the speeds we were running - it was faster than what a stock car runs at Bristol. Running those two places is probably the closest thing you can do to get yourself ready for Bristol."
The Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 are crown jewel races, but winning at Bristol is also pretty special. How so?
"It's awesome. The coolest thing about Bristol is that you have 160,000 fans that you can see all day long or all night long. I can remember races where I passed Jeff Gordon for the lead and I could see the people cheering. It's one of the coolest tracks I've ever been to in my life. The grandstands are right on top of you. I mean, when you get out of the car after practice or qualifying, you can see what the fans are eating and what they're drinking. You're that close! And as hard as it is to win a race there - because you've got to have a perfect day to do it - really makes you cherish a win there. The one win that I have there is one of the best wins of my career. Anybody who wins at Bristol appreciates it."