Tony Stewart Back to old school. ATLANTA (Aug. 26, 2002) - Labor Day weekend typically marks the end of summer and the beginning of school for many a child across the United States. Therefore it's only fitting that the 53rd running of the...
Back to old school.
ATLANTA (Aug. 26, 2002) - Labor Day weekend typically marks the end of summer and the beginning of school for many a child across the United States. Therefore it's only fitting that the 53rd running of the Southern 500 at the historic Darlington (S.C.) Raceway marks a return to old school racing for those competing in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Darlington is the oldest track on the 23-venue Winston Cup tour, having run its first race back in 1950 in what was then called the Grand National Series. Much has changed around the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval since then, but the tough and gritty layout remains virtually the same since Johnny Mantz took the first checkered flag Darlington ever offered.
For Stewart, a 31-year-old throwback to the days of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones - drivers who would race anything, anywhere - Darlington represents old school racing, where driver feel and the ability to adapt to ever-changing track conditions reign superior.
With the abrasive track surface attacking tires like a cheese-grader, racing at Darlington means constantly driving an ill-handling race car. After 10 laps, whatever grip your tires once had is no more, and the seat-of-the-pants feel drivers are ordained with is all that's left.
For Stewart, that's an advantage. When not piloting his #20 Home Depot Pontiac or attending one of his many sponsor appearances, Stewart is racing somewhere. Whether it be on dirt or on pavement, the various cars wheeled by Stewart in various racing environments make the Indiana native a chameleon of sorts, easily adapting to his latest surroundings.
It's the best practice one can get for racing at Darlington.
You just left one tough race track in Bristol (Tenn.) and you're heading to another one in Darlington. How similar are the two tracks when it comes to their physical nature?
"Bristol is tougher physically because you have less time when you're on the straightaways to relax. You almost have no time, really. But at Darlington, the straightaways are long enough to where you can relax a little bit. But don't get me wrong, it's still a tough track."
How tough is this span of races - Bristol, Darlington, Richmond (Va.), Loudon (N.H.), Dover (Del.) - before the relative reprieve of Kansas City?
"For us, it's the best stretch of the schedule. It's tough for the race teams and the crew, but for me personally, this is one of the stretches in the schedule that I really enjoy."
What makes this part of the schedule work to your advantage?
"It gets hot and slippery. The cars start sliding around a lot more, and that seems to play into my hands. It's something that I'm comfortable with, whereas some other drivers might not be."
Do you credit your extra-curricular racing to the success that you've historically enjoyed during this stretch of the season?
"It certainly hasn't hurt me any. I feel like all the stuff that I did in the past to get me to this level definitely helped me, and I really believe that the racing I do now outside of Winston Cup continues to help, especially now when the tracks are hot and slick."
Do you feel this part of the schedule is where other teams start dragging?
"I think so, and this is the part of the year where if you sense that, you can really capitalize on it by preying on the weak, so to speak."
Despite the outcome of this year's spring Darlington race, do you feel that was your best run yet at Darlington?
"I believe it equals our best run. We got ourselves in a situation where we were on four fresh tires and a lot of the other guys only had two fresh tires, and we were able to take advantage of that. But with the wreck, it just didn't work out."
(Stewart had never led a lap at Darlington until this year's spring race, where he led a total of seven laps before a spinning Buckshot Jones collected him coming off turn two on lap 226. With his #20 Home Depot Pontiac already damaged, Stewart was then T-boned by the Dodge of Jimmy Spencer, a hit that sent Stewart to the hospital for overnight observation. - Ed.)
You're coming up on your eighth career race at Darlington. With the age of the track, the various tire compounds you've brought there, the advancing technology of the cars, has the track changed much since you first raced there in March of 1999?
"I don't think the track has ever changed. It's still just as tough as it ever was. Goodyear can bring any tire they want there, but the surface will still tear it up. It's not because of a lack of effort on Goodyear's part, it's just that Darlington has a very abrasive surface that's worn out. And anytime you have a track that's worn out like Darlington is, it's virtually impossible to bring a tire that is going to live. It's just a tough race track, but that's what makes it a lot of fun too."
Does Darlington's track surface seem to change drastically from the time you were there in March to the time you go there in late August/early September?
"It seems like the track is a lot hotter and gives up a lot more grip in August. But that track has always been a tire management type of race track, so you're still going to have to worry about saving your tires. But if the tires are a little harder, like they've been this year, then it's easier to do that."
Darlington pays the same amount of points as any other track on the circuit, but because of its history, it seems to be a race you want to win badly. Is that a fair assessment?
"I'd love to win the Southern 500. When I'm watching TV and I see an old race from Darlington, I'm able to see the history of Darlington and the Southern 500, along with all of the greats who have run there and won there and crashed out of the joint. There's some deep history there, and the race fans down there are some of the most dedicated race fans in our series. That makes it really enjoyable to run well, and hopefully win there."
Do you hold the Southern 500 in the same regard as the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 because of its history?
"You learn a lot about the Southern 500 by watching Speed Channel and seeing all of the classic races. It was kind of like the appreciation I got for Daytona (Fla.) with the 500. Everybody knows it's the biggest race of the year, but to see its history, you realize why it's such a spectacle. It's the same with the Southern 500. You see it's history and you realize what a special event it is, and it makes you want to win it that much more."
Is Darlington the one track on the Winston Cup circuit where you feel you have to work the hardest?
"It's one of the tracks where we seem to work the hardest. The way the tires fall off and as narrow as the track is - it's hard to pass. So, you've got to get your car driving well to be able to pass. You don't want to use up your tires too early in a run. It's definitely one of the harder tracks on the circuit, but there are a lot of hard tracks on our schedule."
Are there different lines that you can run at Darlington?
"The way the tires fall off and the way that you have to change your driving style to compensate for what the tires lack at the end of a run, you'll end up running different lines. You've got to change your driving style each lap - change where you're lifting, how much you're braking, how much you're on the throttle. Some guys from the beginning of a run will race right up against the wall just because that's where their car feels good. It's not so much as the run goes on that you get closer to the wall, it's more dependent on how your car is handling. For instance, my Home Depot Pontiac may start up there, but there might be another guy who starts his run at the bottom of the track."