Tony Stewart Two Track Mind ATLANTA (May 24, 2004) - As evidenced by Tony Stewart's much publicized trip on Sunday to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the driver of the ...
Two Track Mind
ATLANTA (May 24, 2004) - As evidenced by Tony Stewart's much publicized trip on Sunday to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series is still pulled toward the historic track whenever Indy cars lap the 2.5-mile oval.
The 1997 Indy Racing League champion and five-time Indianapolis 500 competitor grew up 45 minutes from the track in the towns of Columbus and Rushville, Ind. But even with his staunch open-wheel roots, it's NASCAR that envelops the 33-year-old Stewart, as he is now in his sixth year as a Nextel Cup driver, just two years removed from his reign as series champion.
But as the month of May ebbs ever closer to Memorial Day weekend, Stewart's past creeps into the present. The last weekend in May offers a cornucopia of racing action, most prominently with the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 Nextel Cup race in Charlotte (N.C.). Stewart has twice mixed the two events, pulling Double Duty by running the 1,100 collective miles in a single day. But it's been since 2001 when Stewart last pulled the Double, finishing sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte.
Stewart has instead poured his efforts into his role at Joe Gibbs Racing, winning one championship, three poles and seven races since last competing in the Indianapolis 500. In 2004, Stewart is again solely focused on his stock car efforts, specifically Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 - the longest race on the Nextel Cup schedule. He and the team enjoyed an extremely productive test at Charlotte May 11, where they shook down chassis No. 77, a car that has led 715 laps in its nine career starts, including the final eight laps in last October's UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte.
From a physical standpoint, do you feel the difference between running 500 miles and running 600 miles?
"It is a long night, but in all reality it's only another half hour or 45 minutes of racing. You really don't notice it."
Do you drive more conservatively at the onset of the Coca-Cola 600 to save your equipment because it does have an extra 100 miles?
"No. The thing with the 600 is that when you start the race it's still day-time and it's still fairly warm. Throughout the race the temperature keeps going down and the track conditions keep changing. It's just a matter of making sure that you're staying up with the changing track conditions. Whether the track's tightened up or loosened up, you've just got to make sure that for each segment of the race you know what you need changed on the car to get yourself ready for the next segment."
Is the Coca-Cola 600 more stressful for you or the engine department?
"The motor guys. From the team's standpoint, we've got all day and night to work on the car. But for the motor guys, they really sweat it out, because once it's in there, it's in there. There's not much more they can do with it."
How much did running the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge last Saturday night at Charlotte help you prepare for this weekend's Coca-Cola 600?
"I think we learned a lot. We learned simple chassis things just trying to figure out how the car reacted. We weren't using the race as a test session. But we do know that the changes we did make - we'll have notes on how it made the car react and how it ran on the next run. We'll be able to utilize some of the knowledge we learned for this weekend."
Robby Gordon will again attempt to run the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. As a veteran of Double Duty, have you shared your experiences with Robby in running both races on the same day?
"Not really. He knows what he's doing. He's seasoned. He's been doing it year after year now. It's old hat for him."
There was a lot of speculation and consternation about whether this year's Indianapolis 500 would have a full 33-car field, and Indy Racing League president Tony George took a fair amount of flack for it. What are your thoughts?
"We've barely had 43 cars at some of our races, so I don't know why people are giving Tony George a bunch of flack about it. It takes a lot more money to run the Indy 500 then it does any Nextel Cup weekend. The cars are just more expensive and it takes a lot of money to run those things. None of those teams own their own motors. They're all on lease programs through a manufacturer. I think the competition is as strong as it's been there for a long time. Everybody needs to quit giving everybody flack. Just go enjoy the race. And if only 31 cars had showed up for the race, they'd all be vying for one spot still, whether it was 31 or 33 of them. Just quit complaining and go enjoy the race."
When Sunday morning rolls around, how much attention will you pay to Indy before you have to head to Charlotte for a round of hospitality stops, a driver's meeting and then the longest race on the Nextel Cup schedule?
"I'll wake up in time to watch the start of it and I'll take a shower during the first commercial and watch as much of it as I can, just like I have the last couple of years. I enjoy the race and I enjoy watching the race. I think it's going to be a tighter field than ever. So I'll be excited to see it just like everyone else will."
You've always been a big supporter of the Indy Racing League (IRL). Why?
"Everybody likes NASCAR-style racing where guys can race wheel-to-wheel. When I started in the IRL I remember running at Texas with Buddy Lazier, and after the race was over he was yelling at me because we ran side-by-side for three laps. Now they're doing that for entire races at the mile-and-a-half tracks and the fans love it. It's just a good formula. It's brought NASCAR-style racing to open-wheel racing. There's all kinds of open-wheel drivers - whether they come out of midgets and sprint cars or road course backgrounds or whatever - that are coming together in the IRL. I never would've had my opportunity to race at Indy if it weren't for Tony George and the IRL. If it had still been under the old format with CART, there never would've been a car owner who called me and said, 'Hey, we want you to come up and test for us.' I never would've gotten that opportunity. But I think I proved that with the opportunity I could do the job. Without the IRL a lot of guys would never have been able to show what they can do."
And now one of your USAC drivers - Jay Drake - seems to be following in your footsteps as he was able to parlay his USAC experience into an Infiniti Pro Series ride at Indy. Talk about that.
"He got a good opportunity after Tony George helped introduce him to the right guy to get him into one of the Infiniti Pro Series cars there. It gives you a sense of pride as an owner knowing that guys that you hire have good talent. And when you hire those guys there are other people who know our reputation and know that if we have the confidence in somebody then they can have the confidence in that same person. It makes you feel good that you're somewhat contributing to their career growth."
Is this a way for you to bring more American drivers into open-wheel racing?
"I want to see the best drivers get rides. If they come out of USAC or if they come out of other countries - I don't care where they come from. But I have thought that there have been some American drivers who had every bit as much talent or more talent than a lot of the guys who ran CART that were never going to get an opportunity to race. So that's why I've always been such a big supporter of the IRL. But I'm not one of those people who say, 'Hey, we have to have Americans in the series.' The Indianapolis 500 is about the fastest 33 Indy car drivers going for one prize. If they happen to come from America, that's great. But it's not fair to other drivers from around the world if they're one of the best but they don't have the chance to run Indy because of what nation they're from. I just think there are a lot of drivers from the United States and all over that truly have the talent to do it, so they deserve a shot."