Darlington: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Points, Pontiacs and Perseverance ATLANTA (March 12, 2002) - In his three previous years on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, Tony Stewart had racked up 12 wins behind the wheel of his Home Depot Pontiac. Of those wins, seven had...

Tony Stewart
Points, Pontiacs and Perseverance

ATLANTA (March 12, 2002) - In his three previous years on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, Tony Stewart had racked up 12 wins behind the wheel of his Home Depot Pontiac. Of those wins, seven had come in the final third of the Winston Cup season.

But at the start of those three seasons, it was a different story - no wins, eight top-fives and only 58 laps led in the first 10 races. "If Tony Stewart could just start his season as strong as he finished it," said observers, "he'd win the championship."

Four races into his senior year on the Winston Cup circuit, Stewart has done just that. Despite being the first car out of the season-opening Daytona 500 and starting the year 43rd in points, Stewart and Co. have rallied to fifth in points on the heels of a fourth-place finish at Rockingham (N.C.), a fifth-place drive at Las Vegas and a win last Sunday at Atlanta. Along the way Stewart has led 219 laps, nearly four times the amount of laps he led in the first 10 races of his three previous years in Winston Cup.

Making the turnaround even more impressive is the fact that Stewart has done it with a seven-year-old Pontiac Grand Prix. The last time a Pontiac received a rules break from NASCAR was over two years ago, and with the new models introduced by Dodge and Ford in recent years, the Pontiac has fallen behind. The reason? Aerodynamic advancements, specifically in terms of downforce, are simply more prevalent in the newer models.

But even with the numbers being stacked against the Pontiac, Joe Gibbs Racing has managed to massage as much speed from the contours of the Grand Prix as possible. With two of the best drivers in Winston Cup - Stewart and Bobby Labonte - the Gibbs stable has still been able to win races. Of the 17 point races Pontiac has won since the 2000 season began, 16 have been by Joe Gibbs Racing drivers - 10 by Stewart alone.

With the next stop of the marathon-like Winston Cup schedule at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, Stewart knows that perseverance with his Pontiac will be the best way to earn more points.

Some people might think that by leading 76 laps at Las Vegas two weeks ago and by winning at Atlanta last week that your Pontiac Grand Prix is more competitive than you say it is. But the Pontiac does suffer from an aerodynamic deficiency and your on-track performance is being hurt by it. How so?

"It's when you get in traffic. Everything that we did in Las Vegas, if you look, was when the traffic was thin or when we could start up at the front of the pack when there were less cars up there to create turbulent air. Everything we did in Atlanta - same deal. We were pretty much by ourselves. It's when you get these cars in traffic that The Home Depot Pontiac loses the majority of its downforce.

"All of the cars are going to lose downforce behind other cars, but it seems like the Pontiac loses more downforce, percentage-wise, than the Fords or the Dodges. I think that showed at the end of the Vegas race. I didn't just forget how to drive the car at the end of the race. Those guys all of the sudden just didn't become better race car drivers at the end of the race. The competition is just so tough and tight that you get near the end of the race like that and you're not just going to drive away from guys like you were before. So with that being said, that's why the Dodges and Fords were able to run tighter with each other because they don't lose that much downforce in traffic. Even with fresh tires, you just can't overcome their downforce. "

Is it overall downforce where the Pontiac is deficient or is it specific to either the nose or the decklid?

"It's just overall. You go in the corner and it's tight, and you get on the gas and try and come off of the corner and it's loose. That's just total downforce, because the car was really good without any changes. So it wasn't a bad set of tires. The tires were consistent all day. The only thing that's left is downforce. You hate to gripe about it, but all of these teams are spending a lot of money going to wind tunnels. They're not just out there watching the wind blow around them. They're making their cars better and better, and it's making the aero side of this business more important."

Will the aerodynamic issues you're facing with the Pontiac continue to present themselves at Darlington?

"I think on any track that's over a mile you're going to be dealing with it, especially on tracks where the grip does give up. If you lose mechanical grip, you rely on aero grip, so I think it's important just about everywhere. Martinsville (Va.), Richmond (Va.) and Bristol (Tenn.), those places I don't think it's going to matter. Sonoma (Calif.) and Watkins Glen (N.Y.), the road courses, I don't think it's going to matter there either. You get everywhere else though, and it's going to be a factor. It may be a bigger factor at some tracks more than others, but for the most part, it's going to be a factor everywhere you go."

You've been able to come from 43rd in points to fifth in the span of just four races. How satisfying is that?

"I'm real excited about our point situation. I'm looking at it from the prospective of top-fives. We've been in the top-five for the past three weeks, so that right there makes me extremely excited about the possibility of what might lay ahead of us.

"We've just got to keep our nose to the ground and keep pushing. We're still 101 points out of the lead right now and that's a pretty good margin to overcome. We've just got to go out and do what we've been doing the past three weeks. If we can be consistent and be in the top-five week-in and week-out, we're going to keep knocking those points down. Hopefully we'll get there before the end of the year."

With the strong runs that you've had as of late, does that make Daytona (Fla.) more or less frustrating?

"I don't think it's either really. You can pretty much count on having three or four bad races a year, whether you get in a wreck or whether you blow a motor or something like that. It just meant that was one of our bad races, which meant that we're going to have to minimize those kinds of days for the rest of the year.

"Being able to go from 43rd in the first race to being fifth after Atlanta, I'm really proud of our Home Depot team for what they've been able to overcome from Daytona. It makes me proud that they didn't let Daytona get them down. The next week we went to Rockingham (N.C.) and finished fourth. We went to Vegas two weeks ago and finished fifth, and then we won Atlanta. So, I'm really proud of the work these guys are doing and the work they did over the winter."

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 test and do your homework. We've tested The Home Depot Pontiac there pretty much ever year, because we feel like it's an important track. 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."

-jgr/hdr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing