Fontana: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Over the Plate and Across the Finish Line in California ATLANTA (April 21, 2003) - Heading into California Speedway in Fontana, NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver Tony Stewart gets to crunch a few numbers. He'll be making his 150th...

Tony Stewart
Over the Plate and Across the Finish Line in California

ATLANTA (April 21, 2003) - Heading into California Speedway in Fontana, NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver Tony Stewart gets to crunch a few numbers. He'll be making his 150th career Winston Cup start in Sunday's Auto Club 500, and while doing so, he'll look to add to his list of top-10 finishes. Since Stewart came to Fontana as a rookie in 1999, he has finished outside of the top-10 only once. And if Stewart wins, he'll become the 10th different winner in 10 Winston Cup races this season - tying the record set in 2000 for different race victors to start a season.

But in addition to those numbers, Stewart will get to work on another number - his ERA - currently listed at 0.00. When the Boston Red Sox visit the World Series champion Anaheim Angels Friday night, it will be Stewart - the reigning Winston Cup champion - who throws out the ceremonial first pitch.

While there's no dust collecting on Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, some dust has settled on his pitching arm. Stewart's lone foray into organized baseball came in 1978 at the age of seven, when he played T-ball for the Columbus (Ind.) Parks and Recreation Department. But 1978 was also the year Stewart drove a go-kart for the first time in nearby Westport.

Needless to say, racing won out - a fact accentuated by Stewart's most recent trip to California, where he won two races in one night. On April 19 at Madera Speedway, Stewart made himself four for four in USAC Western Sprint Car Series competition, taking the season opener at the 1/3-mile asphalt oval. He then jumped into the seat of a Supermodified, where he took his first ever win in that type of race car.

Friday after qualifying you're heading over to Anaheim to throw out the first pitch at the Angels-Red Sox game - when was the last time you threw a baseball?

"It's been a long time since I've thrown a baseball. I've thrown a softball some, but that was a while ago, too. I'm definitely going to have to practice a little bit."

Which is harder - throwing a strike at a major league baseball game with a packed house or making a three-wide pass at 190 mph?

"Throwing a strike at a baseball game with a packed house - no question. I don't do that everyday. I can race three-wide all day long and that doesn't bother me a bit, but throwing a baseball - like I said - that's going to take a little practice."

With the new aero package implemented for this season, many thought that Las Vegas - a race track with a similar layout to Fontana - would provide teams with the best idea as to how their cars would perform under the new aero package. Was that the case and was what you learned at Las Vegas transferable to Fontana?

"The aero issues that we experienced at Las Vegas - and Atlanta and Texas for that matter - we'll be able to take to Fontana and use. All of those high-speed tracks that we've run, where downforce is so much of an issue, we can take what we've learned and apply it to Fontana."

Fontana looks like a lot of the other 1.5-mile to two-mile D-shaped ovals that the NASCAR Winston Cup Series visits. Is it?

"Yeah, it's essentially like racing at any of the other mile-and-a-half to two-mile ovals. The only difference is that the temperature is a little different, the settings are a little different and the food's a little different. But that's about it."

Of all those tracks, which one is the most akin to California?

"California is a lot like Michigan. I like to call it Michigan West. I'm not sure that it has the amount of banking that Michigan has, but it is a flatter track than Michigan. The way you approach the weekend is pretty much the same as far as setups on The Home Depot Chevrolet go. You just don't have the banking to help you like you do at Michigan."

How much of a factor does fuel mileage play at Fontana, and what do you do to conserve fuel?

"Absolutely nothing. I'm not in charge of the Home Depot Racing Team's fuel mileage department. I'm in the driving department. Really, it's the engine tuners who work really hard during the weekend to try to get us the best fuel mileage as possible for the race."

Drivers have won at Fontana by taking two tires instead of four on their last pit stop. When and how do you make the decision to sacrifice tires for track position, or depending on the circumstances, track position for tires?

"I think it just depends on how your car is working. If your car is driving well, one that keeps you up toward the front all day because it's fast, then just two tires can keep you pretty quick. In that situation, you could make a big gain at the end by just taking on two tires and maintaining your track position. Even some guys who are behind and don't have their car the way they want, by taking on two tires, the track position they gain helps out more than four tires would. But when you get right down to it, I think Fontana is a track where if your car's good, then it doesn't matter whether you take two tires or four."

Some people might say that racing at Fontana is boring. What do you say?

"If a guy gets going and gets his car balanced, then he'll tend to run away. That's just the characteristic of that kind of track. It's fast, it's flat and momentum is so important there, that if a guy is off just a little, he's off a lot. The drivers like it from the standpoint that if you can find a way to get around it a little better, then it'll help them in the long run. You end up racing the race track instead of each other."

Do you spend any extra time in California with acquaintances from your Sprint Car days?

"I normally see a lot of them during both of our trips to California. That's part of the fun in going out to California and the West Coast - being able to see a lot of the guys that I raced Sprint Cars and Midgets with. It always feels good to go back out there just from that standpoint."

-jgr/hdr-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart