BUSCH: Fontana: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Doubly Fast at Fontana ATLANTA (April 28, 2004) - When Tony Stewart is looking to do some weed-whacking, he heads to The Home Depot and then to his backyard. But since he's looking to do some Busch-whacking, he's heading straight...

Tony Stewart
Doubly Fast at Fontana

ATLANTA (April 28, 2004) - When Tony Stewart is looking to do some weed-whacking, he heads to The Home Depot and then to his backyard. But since he's looking to do some Busch-whacking, he's heading straight to California Speedway in Fontana, where he'll make his 38th career NASCAR Busch Series start in Saturday's 1-800-PIT-SHOP.com 300.

Driving the #29 ESGR (Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve) Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, Stewart will be making his first Busch Series start since racing at Michigan last August. In that race, Stewart was on his way to his first Busch Series win, as he quickly dominated, leading twice for 85 laps before rain ruined his pit strategy. After making his final pit stop while under green on lap 100, rain began to fall, stopping the race 15 laps short of its scheduled 125-lap distance. Fellow Busch-whacker Kevin Harvick gambled that his fuel could last until the skies opened up, and with Stewart in 11th and Harvick in first, the gamble paid off. But it wasn't a total loss for Stewart, as he parlayed his strong Busch Series performance into a solid third-place finish in the next day's Cup race.

A win in the Busch race would be one more accolade for the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion, but it could also go a long way in bettering his chances for Sunday's Auto Club 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race. What's learned on Saturday can be applied on Sunday, specifically, how cars act in traffic around California's 2-mile oval.

That's been a bone of contention in 2004, as a new tire and aerodynamic package was supposed to bring better racing. Goodyear engineers softened the sidewall construction of their tires, allowing for more grip, while NASCAR chopped the rear spoiler height to five-and-a-half inches, a decrease of three-quarters of an inch from 2003. The idea was to make cars less "aero dependent", a term used to describe the unique handling characteristics cars experienced in traffic. And depending on who you ask, the package has either been a moderate success or a total failure.

Tracks such as California Speedway, with its sweeping corners banked at 14 degrees and its rounded dogleg of a frontstretch banked at 11 degrees, puts an equal premium on aerodynamics and horsepower. You simply can't have one without the other. And with each Nextel Cup team's equality being determined by mere tenths of a second, the collective aerodynamics of a rumbling pack of 3,400-pound race cars has more often than not determined the outcome of the race. California, race number 10 on the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule, will not only showcase a battle amongst 43 race cars, but a battle amidst aerodynamic influences.

You mentioned at the beginning of the season that race venues such as Las Vegas, Atlanta and Texas would provide a good indication as to how the new tire and aerodynamic package would affect racing. You were a supporter of the new rules, insisting that it would lead to better racing. Nine races down and we're still hearing complaints about "aero push", something the new package was supposed to address. Your thoughts?

"I don't think we're ever going to get away from aero push. That's just a result of technology, wind tunnels and big budgets. But there's no way of getting around it. You can't stop people from spending money. So something like an aero push is probably going to get worse before it gets better. But I do think what Goodyear has done with the tires is starting to work. The performance of the tires does fall off, and whether guys want to admit it or not, it's making for better racing because none of these races have been decided on fuel mileage or track position the way that they used to be. For some people to say that the new rules aren't working, I don't think is an accurate statement."

What exactly is an aero push?

"You have two types of balance on your race car. You have mechanical balance and aero balance. Your mechanical balance is comprised of springs, shocks, sway bars and suspension pieces. Your aero balance relates to the total aerodynamics of the car - how the air flows over the top of the race car and how it creates downforce in different areas. If you're running with a car right in front of you, you don't have the air hitting the front of your car as you would if you were running in clean air, where there's no one in front of you. When someone is in front of you and you're not getting that air pushing down on the front of the nose, the car isn't getting the downforce it needs to stick to the race track. That creates an understeer condition, which makes the car push out toward the wall. That's what's happening when you hear drivers complain of an aero push."

There has been talk of further decreasing the rear spoiler height to create less rear downforce. Is that a change for the better?

"I don't know what the formula is to make the racing the way it should be. I just know it's better than what it's been. What we have now is at least a step in the right direction. And if they (NASCAR) can find something to make it better, then that'll be great. But what that thing is, I don't know."

You'll be competing in the Busch Series race this Saturday at California. Will the time spent running the Busch race help in your preparation for the Nextel Cup race?

"Hopefully it'll help a lot. The bad thing is that once we start the Busch race we don't get a chance to test any changes we make to the Cup car. Whatever we start with is what we're going to end with. But I don't think it'll hurt me, by any means."

How much do you think the Busch Series has changed from when you ran there fairly regularly in 1998?

"I think the Busch Series has progressed the same way the Nextel Cup Series has progressed. The sponsorship dollars have gone up and the level of competition has gone up. There are still a dozen good cars each week that can go out and win the race. You're still working with the same group of people who can go out and win each week.

"The cars have changed quite a bit. They have more horsepower and they're a lot more similar to a Cup car than they used to be. And the series still has some really, really good teams out there. But there's a bunch of new guys out there that you don't really know too much about. So you always have to be careful when you go out there and run with guys you don't know. You've got to learn what they do and what they don't do."

Was there much of a difference in the feel of the two cars when you made the transition from Busch to Cup in 1999?

"It's hard to say. I had a different group of guys working on my Busch car than what I had, and still have, in Nextel Cup with The Home Depot team. It'll be interesting driving for this team in the Busch Series versus my previous experiences in Busch cars. It seemed like it was quite a bit different in some ways, but at a big track like California, I don't anticipate there being much of a difference between the two series."

A Busch Series win is one of the few things left on your resume. How badly do you want it?

"Really bad. There are only two divisions where I've run but I haven't won, and that's the Busch Series and sports cars. A Busch win would be one of the two and all that would be left would be a sports car race. After that I'll have won in every type of race car I've ever driven."

Fontana looks like a lot of the other 1.5-mile to 2-mile D-shaped ovals that the Nextel Cup Series visits. Is it?

"California is a lot like Michigan. I like to call it Michigan West. I'm not sure that it has the amount of banking that Michigan has, but it is a flatter track than Michigan. The way you approach the weekend is pretty much the same as far as setups on The Home Depot Chevrolet go. You just don't have the banking to help you like you do at Michigan."

What percentages would you put on a comparison between the importance of horsepower and handling at California?

"It's probably about 50/50. You need to have an aerodynamic car, but you've got to have the horsepower to pull it, too. You can't have one and not the other and expect to go to California and win the race."

California is a track where a driver can search for different grooves, as opposed to Indianapolis or New Hampshire, where there is really only one true groove. As a driver, do you appreciate that more?

"It's nice knowing that as a driver you can help yourself out and you're not relying so much on the car. Regardless of what everyone else is doing, you can find a way to help yourself out. It makes you feel good knowing that because the place is so wide, you can move around, and basically, earn your money that day."

At what point do you start to move around on the race track to find a better handle for your race car?

"As soon as you feel like you're not where you need to be. If you feel like you're slower than the pace you need to be running, you're going to move up the race track and find a place that helps balance your race car. Really, from the drop of the green flag, you do it from there on out."


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Drivers Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick
Teams Richard Childress Racing