Darlington: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Different Name on a Different Date, Same Race ATLANTA (May 2, 2005) - The more things change, the more they stay the same. Such is the case with venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. The 55-year-old speedway is in the crosshairs...

TONY STEWART
Different Name on a Different Date, Same Race

ATLANTA (May 2, 2005) - The more things change, the more they stay the same. Such is the case with venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

The 55-year-old speedway is in the crosshairs of NASCAR's booming popularity. A staple of NASCAR racing and the Labor Day weekend since 1950 when Johnny Mantz drove his black Plymouth to the win in the first Southern 500, the gritty and fast 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval continues to endure in NASCAR's brave new world.

But while it is still a part of the NASCAR fabric, its heritage isn't enough to sustain it as NASCAR's once predominantly Southeastern roots become more and more mainstream.

For years NASCAR was saturated in the Carolinas with eight point races at four race tracks - Charlotte, Darlington, Rockingham and North Wilkesboro - before having only four point races at two tracks, and this year, three point races at two tracks. North Wilkesboro fell off the NASCAR calendar following the 1996 season, and the series' February visit to Rockingham last year marked the end of a 39-year relationship. And Darlington, host of two NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races since 1960, is down to just one race.

But while the name and date of Darlington's 500-mile race has changed, the actual race has not. The same handful of a race track that Mantz navigated is the same track that Home Depot Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart will navigate this weekend with the nighttime running of the Dodge Charger 500. And for Stewart, a driver who honed his skill by manhandling sprint cars on tight, dirt bullrings on his way to NASCAR stardom, Darlington is a throwback to that old school type of racing.

And with the majority of NASCAR races now in major media markets catering to advertiser-friendly demographics, the time-warp escape to Darlington is a welcome diversion. For Stewart, currently sixth in points and buoyed by a strong second-place finish last Sunday at Talladega (Ala.), Darlington is a track that suits his old school style.

Does a 500-mile race at Darlington still hold the same value to you even though it's not called the Southern 500 and it's no longer held on Labor Day weekend?

"Of course. Five hundred miles at Darlington is still 500 miles at Darlington, no matter when you're racing there. It's a tough race track and a tough race. To me, the date of the Southern 500 might've changed, but the race sure hasn't."

Why is a win at Darlington a feather in any driver's cap?

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

"I could probably run backward and run about the same as I do going forward. That's how close I feel like I am to figuring out Darlington. We've run decent at Darlington. I mean, I've run in the top-five there before, but every time I think I have something figured out, I normally whack the wall and go, 'Oh boy, I really did figure it out, didn't I?' I don't know that I'll ever feel like I've got Darlington totally figured out.

"But at the same time, 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."

Why is Darlington considered a driver's track?

"It's a driver's track because you have to take care of your tires and you have to move around on the race track. You have to do things on the race track to help your car out because very rarely do you get a car that's absolutely perfect at Darlington."

What makes Darlington such a tough race track?

"The surface is just worn out, and it's been worn out for years. Plus, it's like racing down an alley. It's not a very wide race track. And the speeds that we run there makes racing very difficult. There's little room for error because of how close you run to the wall."

How do you feel about running 500 miles at Darlington under the lights?

"I can promise you, racing at night here in the spring is going to feel a lot better than racing during the day in the summer. When I was inside the car I normally felt like I was a Thanksgiving turkey and I was looking on my body for that little red pill to stick out and tell me that it was time to take me out of the oven. Racing at night when it's cooler is definitely going to feel better for the drivers. And you won't see as many people in the stands looking like cooked lobsters when they leave. I think we'll all benefit from racing under the lights.

"A night race is something that's never happened at Darlington. I like being able to see the first of anything, whether it's the first night race at a track or whatever. We're going to run an entire race under the lights, and that's something you're not going to want to miss. Ten years from now, if I were a fan, I'd want to say that I was there. You're only going to see the first night race one time. And if you miss it this time, you're going to miss it for good. Memories from firsts like the first night race at Darlington can only happen one time."

Do aerodynamics play a role at Darlington?

"Aerodynamics play a role everywhere we go nowadays. Martinsville (Va.) might be the only track where aerodynamics don't really play a role anymore. So even at a place like Darlington, you've got to make sure you keep the fenders straight because you need every bit of downforce you can get."

How does the current generation of Goodyear tire hold up at Darlington?

"Let me put it this way, if you're pitted in turn four, by the time you get to turn one your tires are about as good as they'd be with five laps on them at any other race track. 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. But it's the same for everybody, and that's what makes Darlington fun. You have to race the race track. It's very challenging."

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."

The Darlington race is now the night before Mother's Day, and your mom - Pam Boas - will be one of the many mothers who will serve as grand marshals for Saturday night's race. What kind of support has your mom given you during your racing career?

"My whole family supported me, basically. Mom was a little more reserved and a little more quiet about it than my father was. My father was kind of the ring leader. He was the one who made all the decisions on what we did and didn't do. While she was a little bit reserved, she was, and still is, one of my biggest supporters."

How would you describe your mom?

"She's a pretty patient woman. Anyone that could actually raise me and not want to kill me or kick me out of the house has got to be a very patient person. That's my mom. She's a very patient lady with a great heart and she's really good with people."

-jgr-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart