Unfinished Business ATLANTA (Oct. 7, 2003) - Tony Stewart's month of May at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway started off well, but in both The Winston and the Coca-Cola 600, those starts turned into disappointing endings. Stewart led twice for...
ATLANTA (Oct. 7, 2003) - Tony Stewart's month of May at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway started off well, but in both The Winston and the Coca-Cola 600, those starts turned into disappointing endings.
Stewart led twice for 18 laps to capture the first segment of The Winston, but was then caught up in an accident during the second segment. Result - 14th. In the following week at the Coca-Cola 600, Stewart led three times for 68 laps before a faulty spark plug on lap 120 sent him to the garage area for repairs. Thirty-one laps later, Stewart returned to the race track. Result - 40th.
To say that Stewart has some unfinished business when he returns to the 1.5-mile oval for Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500 would be an understatement. The reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion knows all too well the strength his #20 Home Depot Chevrolet displayed back in May. And he is also well aware of the team's performance in the four months since.
Following the Coca-Cola 600, Stewart and Co. were 20th in points - their lowest point position of the season. Upon their return to Charlotte, they're eighth in points thanks to three straight top-five finishes. And that gives the #20 team plenty of confidence for the first nighttime running of the fall race at Charlotte.
With only six races remaining, confidence is a valuable asset. While they may not be racing for a championship, the #20 team is racing for pride. In the four previous years they've competed in Winston Cup, they've finished no lower than sixth in the season-ending point standings. Two-hundred-and-forty-six points currently separate Stewart from sixth-place Jeff Gordon, a position that is locked in Stewart's crosshairs. Despite the wide separation, a sixth-place point finish is attainable, because with 2,376 racing miles left in the 2003 season, anything can happen.
Can your strong runs at Charlotte in May translate to a strong run at Charlotte in October?
"I think the track will be pretty similar, actually. Lately, we've seemed to have had wet and kind of cooler weather in May, and the fact that we're running at night in October, the temperatures will have come down and it'll make it a lot like The Winston and the Coca-Cola 600 were this year. We run really well at Charlotte, and I'm pretty confident that we'll run well again this time."
It's been said that the track surface at Charlotte changes a lot. How so?
"It's temperature sensitive, and depending upon when we practice and what time of day we make our runs, you kind of have to plan ahead for knowing what the track is going to do. We'll watch it, paying attention to what time the practices are and we'll set up The Home Depot Chevrolet accordingly. If the car's not driving perfect in practice that doesn't mean it's bad, because you know the track is going to cool off. You don't want to adjust a whole lot because you might overcompensate for a condition that's not even going to be there when the race starts. So, you really have to plan ahead."
What are your thoughts on moving the October Charlotte race to nighttime?
"I like it. I enjoy having Sundays off. The crew guys can have a day off. We as drivers can have a day off. Folks in racing can live like normal people for a day. When we race on Sunday, the crew guys don't get a day off on Monday. They have to be at the shop. Weekends where we have a Saturday night race gives the crew guys a bit of a breather on Sunday."
You seem to thrive during night races, with three of your 16 Winston Cup victories having come under the lights. Is that an accurate description?
"I've always been a fan of Saturday night races. I just like them. I've run more races in my career at night than I have during the daytime. It's just something I enjoy doing."
What kind of role do aerodynamics play at Charlotte?
"Charlotte's not as bad as some of the other tracks. Aero does play a role, but Charlotte is still a handling race track. You've got to get your car to drive well and handle well. That's the main thing at Charlotte. It has more bumps than some of these other tracks do, and that's what can change the attitude of your race car."
You've said that you run a unique line around Charlotte. Explain the line you run.
"It's the same line that I run in qualifying. As the tires get older a lot of drivers will move up off the bottom of the track through turns three and four. I'm able to stay right on the bottom with the setup that we run. It's hard to do that because the race track is a lot rougher on the bottom of (turns) three and four. So, it's a unique challenge for us to find a balance as to what we need to do to The Home Depot Chevrolet to make it compatible with the tire."
Is turn four as treacherous as everyone claims? How so?
"With the line I run I have a lot of room coming off turn four since I run on the bottom. But when a lot of guys over the course of the race move up to the top of the race track, then it does become treacherous because it gets really tight coming off of turn four. That and the banking falls off real hard, too. It makes for a unique challenge. Once you get into turns one and two you can get right back on the gas and stay in it. Turns three and four are a different story. With the years of the sun beating down on that part of the track, Mother Nature hasn't been kind to that end of the race track. It's bumpier and the cars will move around a little more. That makes it a little harder to get through."
You'll be participating in a KaBOOM! playground build at the YWCA in downtown Charlotte on Wednesday. Talk about that.
"It's nice to do the autograph signings and its nice to spend time with the fans, but the feeling that you have when you're finished doing a build like that, where you actually use your hands to help build something that children are going to enjoy, it makes you feel really proud of the time that you've spent there. To see kids be able to play on this playground when we get done with it is going to be exciting. Just to be a part of that, knowing that you're helping to build a future and a safe place for kids to grow up and enjoy themselves, that's something to be proud of in life."
How nice is it to sleep in your own bed during the Charlotte race week?
"I wish I could say it's great, but it's an extremely busy week. We've got some appearances on Tuesday. On Wednesday during the day I'm participating in a KaBOOM! build in downtown Charlotte and then Wednesday night I've got my USAC Sprint Car team racing over at The Dirt Track. And then starting on Thursday it's busy at the race track. As much as it's nice to be home, it's still a very, very busy week."