TONY STEWART Turning the Corner, Figuratively and Literally ATLANTA (March 22, 2006) - Tony Stewart's season and his time at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway have turned the figurative corner as he gets ready to turn 2,000 literal corners in ...
Turning the Corner, Figuratively and Literally
ATLANTA (March 22, 2006) - Tony Stewart's season and his time at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway have turned the figurative corner as he gets ready to turn 2,000 literal corners in Sunday's Food City 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race.
The tight and fast Bristol oval that whips drivers around its .533-mile confines in 15 seconds had whipped up on Stewart since he won the 2001 night race. After earning his first and only Bristol victory, Stewart had finished 15th or worse in the next six Bristol races before rallying to finish third in last year's spring race. The two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion backed up that run with a solid eighth-place finish in his last visit to the track in August, giving Stewart a total of five top-10 finishes in 14 career starts at Bristol.
And fresh off a solid fifth-place run at Atlanta that vaulted Stewart from 19th to 12th in the championship point standings, the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing is ready to resume his typical top-10 point standing, provided that Sunday's Food City 500 is more feast than famine.
That's the term Stewart uses to describe racing at Bristol, for it epitomizes his seven-year tenure at the high-banked bullring. Consider that with his win in the 2001 night race and his second-place effort in the 2000 night race and fifth-place finish in the 1999 night race that Stewart led 429 of a possible 1,500 laps (28.6 percent). But contrast those runs to the nine other Bristol races where Stewart has finished 15th or worse. There, his average finish is 24th with only 154 laps led (3.5 percent).
It's a testament to the high standards of The Home Depot Racing Team. Some outfits would be satisfied to leave Bristol with a top-25 finish. But after 24 point-paying victories and two championships, Stewart and Co. expect consistent, top-10 results with an eye always pointed toward victory. And with two straight top-10 Bristol finishes now under their belts, they're expecting more come Sunday.
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."
Keeping your race car in one piece seems to be a difficult task for anyone who races at Bristol. Spins and crashes appear routine. Yet when you spun on lap 375 during last year's spring race, you kept it off the wall and away from other cars before grabbing a gear to get going again. How much of that was skill and how much of that was luck?
"Luck, because there's only so much you have control over. The rest of it is just your instincts telling you to do part of it, but the rest of it is just luck. We got lucky that we didn't hit the wall sliding up the race track, and as we were spinning around nobody else hit us, and lucky that when it did come around I got the wheels straight in time. Part of it is skill and part of it is luck. Nobody is going to come in here and tell you it's all skill and that they practice all the time and they've got it down to perfection. But after you do it a couple times, I guess you do get better at it. But you still hope you don't have to do it."
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."
You've said in the past that Bristol is your favorite track, but your four top-fives are offset by nine 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. But we finished third back in April to finally get a good finish there, and we backed it up in the night race with a top-10. Hopefully it's a sign of better things to come."
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."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
A lot has been made of the #48 team's success without crew chief Chad Knaus being at the race track due to his four-race suspension. Some pundits are wondering if a race team isn't better off by having its crew chief back at the shop full-time instead of splitting his time at the shop and at the race track Friday through Sunday. Do you buy into that theory?
"Not really. Eventually, I think you'd lose a grip on what was going on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the track. I think we all work hard and prepare ourselves as best as we can. If our stuff isn't being prepared to the level and satisfaction we need it to be, then we've got the wrong people back at the shop. Chad has always done a good job of putting a good setup underneath his race cars. They're fast pretty much everywhere they go. And even while he's been gone, I'm sure he's put a setup underneath the car with some direction as to where to go and what to look at when the car is at the track. And the other thing is that Hendrick Motorsports is one of the strongest teams in motorsports. They're as good as anybody. They took somebody who had been around that 48 car (Darian Grubb) for a long time and plugged him to Chad's role. Things have gone well for them, and whether it's because of or in spite of the changes they had to make, you really won't ever know. Chad will be back this week at Bristol and I don't think you'll see much of a performance change because he's now at the track and not at home. They have good people working on their stuff back at the shop. The only thing it's done is it's probably allowed him during the week to work on setups and what I call 'what ifs'. Where are you going to go if the car does this or does that? And when you're doing your setup sheet you're thinking about the different directions you might need to go. You probably just put that down on paper for the other guys. But they've done a good job in adapting to whatever situation has been thrown at them, because they've won two races and have had two other good finishes. They're a strong team and they've been a strong team since they came to Nextel Cup."
Does the traditional role of crew chief needs to change? Should there be a crew chief for the track and a crew chief for the shop?
"We have different roles at Joe Gibbs Racing. Jeff Chandler is our shop foreman and his job is to make sure that what's on that setup sheet gets put into those cars and at the level we expect. It's my job to think about where we're going, what we're doing and what we're putting in those cars. It's Jason's (Shapiro, car chief) job to make sure that he knows the parts and the pieces that are on that car and also what's on the truck so that he knows what needs to be done depending on the direction we're going at the track. And he also makes sure that all the guys on the team know what we're working on that week. There's a little overlap with each position, but each person oversees a completely different element of the race team.
"Chad (Knaus) still has those same kinds of people working on the same things, but he's been working on different things - stuff that maybe he didn't have time to work on, from future projects to test stuff to tweaking on existing cars to make sure all of the templates are being maximized. Normally on a week-to-week basis, you can only do so much. In some aspects he probably can pay a little more attention to some details and make sure that everything is 110 percent instead of just 100 percent. But truly, I think the 48 is successful because they have a great group of people and Chad's done a great job of putting together a group of people who work well together and they're not missing a beat right now."
How harsh of a penalty is it to have a crew chief receive a four-race suspension?
"I would not want to do that to myself or to my guys. There may be some weeks where they wish I was suspended, but that's just life. I wouldn't even want to go there."
How important is it to work with Tony Stewart at a place like Bristol, where staying cool and keeping your calm is key when spins and crashes and beating and banging is just a part of the race?
"Bristol is just one of those places where it's so easy to put yourself over the edge, whether it be me in my position or Tony in his position. It's one of those places where being calm and cool will prevail throughout the day. You try not to put yourself in bad positions. You try to think ahead and look ahead. It's one of those places were you truly have to be there at the end, and it doesn't take much not to be there. But you've got to have a good race car. It doesn't matter how cool or calm you are if you don't have a good car. Your car has got to do everything you need it to do or you're off. Things happen so fast because that place is so quick and the groove is so limited. You've got to be on your game."