Tony Stewart The Times They Are A-Changin' ATLANTA (Sept. 16, 2003) - Provided the high winds and heavy rains accompanying Hurricane Isabel don't change the complexion of Sunday's MBNA America 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, the ...
The Times They Are A-Changin'
ATLANTA (Sept. 16, 2003) - Provided the high winds and heavy rains accompanying Hurricane Isabel don't change the complexion of Sunday's MBNA America 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, the technical state of racing in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series will.
As rudimentary as today's Winston Cup car is - with its use of carbureted engines powered by leaded gasoline being just one example - there is still plenty of technology being poured into these 3,400-pound race cars, and Tony Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet is one such example. Its body has been sculpted in a wind tunnel, its brakes have lineage to Formula 1, and its engine has already enjoyed a race simulation, thanks to an in-house dynamometer.
But putting all that technology to the ground comes in only one form - tires. They are the most important element of a race car, as without tires, there's simply no go.
Since Stewart swept both Dover races in 2000 as part of a six-win season that made him the winningest Winston Cup driver that year, tire technology has changed considerably.
The tires Stewart ran in 2000 were softer compared to the tires currently in use, and it added an element of strategy not seen in today's Winston Cup racing. Because the tires of three years ago were soft, they lost grip over the course of a run. A driver had to manage his tires to last an 80-lap race run, for abusing the tires during the first 20 laps may rocket that driver to the front of the field, but the lack of grip those tires had for the next 60 laps would send that same driver backward through the field.
Today's tires are much harder, which means the amount of grip provided is more consistent. Tire management isn't the factor that it used to be, with track position and pit strategy taking its place. Passing comes at a premium these days, with many recent races having been won on pit road rather than on the race track.
For Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team, they're adapting to the changing times. While they haven't won at Dover since their 2000 sweep, they have scored three top-fives and four top-10s in their five starts since, with their worst finish during that stretch being an 11th place result in the 2002 spring race.
The times might be a-changin', but Stewart and Co. have proven their ability to adapt.
Are tires perhaps the number one reason why the complexion of the Dover race has changed so much between now and the time you swept both Dover races in 2000?
"Tires are definitely the number one reason why that race has changed. Looking back, it was a tough situation for Goodyear. There were a lot of tire failures when we won in 2000, but we never had any problems with the tires. Goodyear had to deal with teams that were abusing their tires and causing tires to blow. It wasn't because of how the tire was manufactured. It was because of some team's inability to make their cars turn through the corners. With their chassis setup, they were asking the tires to do something they were never designed to handle. So Goodyear had to make a more durable tire, and that really changed the complexion of how we race at Dover. Goodyear has made some changes with the tire, and in all reality, probably made it safer for all of us. The teams that were struggling with the tires now have a tire that's harder for them to abuse. That helps protect Goodyear, which Goodyear had to look at because they had to take care of themselves too. We've got a harder tire that makes you slide around a lot more on the race track, and that makes the balance of the car very critical."
How were you able to sweep the Dover races in 2000?
"You had to play the chess match of tire management, and that's what made it so fun for us and so exciting for the fans. You couldn't just start on the point and run away from the field. You had to play the chess match. You might've had a guy who was in a hurry at the beginning of a run and passed three or four cars, but at the end of that run he'd get passed by those same three or four cars, and maybe a couple more because he had used up his tires. The fans got to see a lot of racing, which unfortunately they don't get to see as much of now."
How much of a role does aerodynamics play at Dover in comparison to handling?
"Both are important. Air is free, so if you're aero program gives you a lot of downforce, that's great. But at the same time, with all the bumps Dover has, you have to work on the mechanical balance too. It's a track that requires every aspect of your racing program for you to be on the money."
Is Dover the type of race track where a driver can make up for a race car that isn't handling well or an engine that's down on horsepower?
"I think so. With the way the cars slide around on the race track late in the day, there are times when a driver can make up for what the car won't do. They can move around on the race track and help themselves out by finding a faster groove."
Is Dover a bigger version of Bristol (Tenn.), in that it's a high-banked concrete oval, but just an extra half-mile in length?
"I don't think so, from the standpoint that at Bristol the grove is always along the bottom, all night long. At Dover, there are times when I run up at the top of the track, there are times I run in the middle of the track, and there are times when I run at the bottom of the track. It has more characteristics like Michigan, where depending on how your car is driving, you can move around on the race track and help yourself out."
How physical is a race at Dover?
"It's really physical. The banking, the bumps - it all takes its toll on your body after a race."
How do you feel after a race at Dover?
"I normally sleep pretty good that night after the race is over. It's probably a little tougher on your body than the majority of the other races we run, but that's also why it feels so good when you win there, because you know it's a tough race."
Is Dover a good track to have on the Winston Cup schedule simply because it's different?
"Absolutely. It's a one-off track. You can't go anywhere in the country and find another track like Dover. I like the one-off tracks. I like the places that aren't copies off of somebody else's race track."
Does Dover have some characteristics from other tracks that you've raced on in your career?
"Not really. Dover's pretty unique. First of all, it's the only one-mile track that we go to that's concrete. Then it has such big corners. You're in the corner for a long, long time. You really don't get much of a chance to take a break and relax."
What is the difference between racing on concrete and racing on asphalt?
"It's pretty much the same. I guess the biggest thing is that the sun doesn't affect the concrete as much because the surface is white. It doesn't absorb as much heat as an asphalt track does. But other than that, you go through the same set of scenarios and challenges you would on any asphalt track - either the car is going to be tight or it's going to be loose."
Explain a lap around Dover.
"What you do for qualifying is totally different from what you do in the race. Basically, a lot of the cars qualify down on the bottom of the track, but by the time you're about 40 or 50 laps into the race, there are cars all the way from the bottom of the race track to right up against the outside wall. That's a big difference in between. Basically, everybody just searches around on the race track looking for a spot that makes their car happy. So obviously, we're going to try and make The Home Depot Chevrolet as happy as possible."