Darlington: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Darlington a southern version of Indy. ATLANTA (March 11, 2003) - Tony Stewart didn't grow up in the heart of Dixie, nor did he cut his teeth on the stock car bullrings of the South. And yet, despite his Indiana upbringing and his...

Tony Stewart
Darlington a southern version of Indy.

ATLANTA (March 11, 2003) - Tony Stewart didn't grow up in the heart of Dixie, nor did he cut his teeth on the stock car bullrings of the South. And yet, despite his Indiana upbringing and his open-wheel roots, Stewart knows just as much about stock cars at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway as he does about Indy cars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The reason is simple - history - and Stewart's appreciation for all things fast and those who drive them.

NASCAR's first race at Darlington was in 1950 - 21 years before Stewart was even born. It was the inaugural Southern 500 and it was NASCAR's first ever 500-mile race. Hollywood stuntman Johnny Mantz, who had competed in the Indianapolis 500 in 1948 and 1949, won at an average speed of 76.260 mph behind the wheel of a Plymouth coupe. Races such as that one, as well as some of the other 98 races held since, have been available on television via ESPN Classic and Speed Channel so that youngsters such as Stewart could watch.

"When I'm watching TV and I see an old race from Darlington, I'm able to see all of the greats who have run there and won there and crashed out of the joint," said Stewart. "There's some deep history at that place, 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."

Stewart comes into the 100th race at the venerable 1.366-mile oval ready to carve out a little history of his own. Sunday's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 will mark Stewart's ninth career NASCAR Winston Cup Series appearance at Darlington, and he's ready to improve upon the five top-10 finishes he has already earned. But perhaps more important to Stewart than just bettering his career best finish of fourth is watching an old Darlington race in the not too distant future where he's the one spraying the champagne.

Coming from an open-wheel background, was Darlington a place that even open-wheel guys had respect for simply because of the track's history?

"Absolutely. As much as we know about the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I think people underestimate how much we know about Darlington and the history of that track, and how hard it is to win races there. I guess that's why a win at Darlington is something that's really important to me."

Even though the spring race at Darlington is 100 miles shorter than the Southern 500, is a win at Darlington a feather in any driver's cap, regardless of the length of the race?

"I definitely think so. Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day. You don't see a lot of guys who have a lot of success there. You see only a handful of guys who religiously run well there. That just shows you how difficult Darlington is to get a handle on. If you can have a good day and win there, it's a track that's like winning at Bristol (Tenn.). It's the same type of feeling - knowing that you conquered something that's very hard to obtain."

If someone were to build a new racetrack, would a layout in the spirit of Darlington be a better decision than another 1.5-mile D-shaped oval?

"Anything's better than building another mile-and-a-half D-shaped oval at this point. We need more Richmonds. We need more Bristols and Martinsvilles and Darlingtons. We need variety in this series. We don't need to keep racing at a mile-and-a-half oval every week for 500 miles. We need to race somewhere different."

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."

Is Darlington a frustrating track for you, in that you run well - top-10 - but not as well as you'd like?

"No, because there are a lot of teams that aren't at the level that we are at Darlington. It's just one of those deals where the only way you're going to find a way to make yourself better is to go there and just do your homework. It takes a lot to get around that place consistently and fast all day. It's just a tough place to get around well, and there's a group of guys that get around there well every time we go there. It's like we're right on the verge of being one of those guys. We just need to find a little something that can help us get into that elite group."

You're coming up on your ninth career race at Darlington. With the age of the track, the various tire compounds Goodyear has 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 last August to the time you come back in mid-March?

"It seems like the track is a lot hotter and gives up a lot more grip in August. But regardless, 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, no matter what the temperature is."

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 Chevrolet may start up there, but there might be another guy who starts his run at the bottom of the track."

-jgr/hdr-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart