Darlington: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Mr. Lewis Goes to Darlington, Vicariously ATLANTA (March 16, 2004) - When one talks about Darlington (S.C.) Raceway - site of this Sunday's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 - most mention the names of 10-time Darlington race winner David...

Mr. Lewis Goes to Darlington, Vicariously

ATLANTA (March 16, 2004) - When one talks about Darlington (S.C.) Raceway - site of this Sunday's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 - most mention the names of 10-time Darlington race winner David Pearson and nine-time Darlington race winner Dale Earnhardt. But perhaps one more name needs to be mentioned when discussing Darlington Raceway - Steve Lewis.

Lewis has been a winning car owner in the United States Auto Club (USAC) since the late Stan Fox won at Anderson (Ind.) Speedway on Sept. 7, 1979. Lewis has a record 113 USAC wins, and his drivers for many of those wins are either household NASCAR names or soon-to-be household NASCAR names. One such prominent name is Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. Another name is Kasey Kahne, who has scored one pole and three top-three finishes just four races into his rookie campaign. Together, Stewart and Kahne scored 29 USAC wins while driving for Lewis.

And what does that have to do with Darlington?

The high-horsepowered, open-wheeled cars of USAC promote tire management and car control. And at Darlington, the 1.366-mile oval necessitates tire management and car control. Its race surface is gritty and its confines are tight, making it one of the most demanding tracks on the Nextel Cup circuit. But for Stewart, Kahne and other drivers who honed their talent in USAC, their over-powered and under-tired Nextel Cup cars reward those skills at Darlington. Just ask Jeff Gordon, a former USAC standout who has recorded six Darlington wins.

While Stewart has yet to visit Darlington's victory lane, he does have two top-fives and six top-10s in his 10 career starts at the track often called "too tough to tame." Kahne, on the other hand, visits Darlington this weekend for career start number one. Thanks to Lewis, both are well-prepared.

Both you and Kasey Kahne drove for Steve Lewis. How has he been able to find such talented drivers and then prepare them for success in Nextel Cup?

"The combination of Steve Lewis and Bob East - they've always been able to get the best drivers who were out there. They've got the best Midget program in the United States right now. When I got my opportunity to drive for Steve, I knew that it was a good opportunity to win a national championship again. It was something that could get me a lot of publicity if I went out and did well. It put a lot of pressure on me, but at the same time, there've been so many good drivers coming out of Steve Lewis' camp that whoever they've hired to be their new driver is a guy who gets a lot of attention right away, because they know that Bob's reputation and Steve's reputation is that of hiring good, quality drivers who can go out and get the job done."

Are you surprised by the early success of Kasey Kahne?

"I guess none of us should be, but you never really know exactly what a driver is going to do when they go to a new series until they get in there. From one angle, I'm a little bit surprised because I don't think anybody expected him to have this kind of success this early. But on the other side of it, I know how talented a driver he is because I've watched him run winged Sprint cars and USAC Sprint cars and Midgets. The one thing that I am sure of is that I'm very, very excited for him to have had the success he's had so far."

You enjoyed a very successful rookie season with three wins, two poles and a fourth-place position in the season-ending point standings. What's it like to have success right away as a rookie?

"It puts a lot of pressure on you. You go out and you have a couple of good runs, it does two things - it gives you a lot of confidence, but it also puts the pressure on you to keep up that pace. If Kasey doesn't let that pressure get to him, he'll be fine."

Can Kasey's early success give him a false sense of confidence, or does it make him a better race car driver because he's proven himself?

"It can give you a false sense of confidence because you're only four races into the season so far. There might be some tracks where he might struggle. We don't know. The good thing is that he's got a good start to the year, and that's half the battle right there. He's got the first part out of the way. He's shown people that he can run well and that he's a smart driver."

Does early success help you get the respect of veterans a little sooner?

"Yes and no. It's one thing to run up front, but it's another thing to show the veterans that you've learned how to run up front and be smart doing it at the same time, and I think Kasey's doing a good job of doing that."

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?

"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."

Is Darlington the one track on the Nextel 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 11th 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."


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Kasey Kahne , David Pearson