ATLANTA (Nov. 13, 2001) - On paper, it looks as though Atlanta Motor Speedway is the Achilles heel of The Home Depot Racing Team. Of the 12 wins, 39 top-fives, 64 top-10s and four poles Tony Stewart and his ...
ATLANTA (Nov. 13, 2001) - On paper, it looks as though Atlanta Motor Speedway is the Achilles heel of The Home Depot Racing Team. Of the 12 wins, 39 top-fives, 64 top-10s and four poles Tony Stewart and his #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Team have accumulated in their three years of NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing, none have come at the 1.54-mile oval. In fact, of the 10 career DNFs (Did Not Finish) the team has suffered, three have come in their past three visits to Atlanta.
But it shouldn't all be doom and gloom for Stewart and Company, for their paper results mask their actual showings. A top-10 finish in this year's Cracker Barrel 500 fell short when Stewart's engine fell apart in the waning laps, dropping parts and pieces as he made his way toward the garage area. And accidents in both Atlanta races in 2000 occurred while Stewart was racing in the top-10.
With those past Atlanta performances in mind, as well as their stake at a possible runner-up position in the championship point standings, The Home Depot Racing Team tested at Atlanta Motor Speedway Oct. 16-17 in preparation for Sunday's penultimate NAPA 500.
How did your Atlanta test go?
"We had about three tests saved for the end of the season, and Atlanta was one of those places where we felt like we needed to test. It was a pretty big deal for us, because we do seem to run well there, but we never seem to be a top-five car. Atlanta is Home Depot's backyard, essentially, and a win there is pretty important to us. We've typically been an 8th to 10th place car there - when we're running. So, we certainly expect to be better this time around. And with the situation that we're in right now with where we are in the point standings, I'm glad that we saved some tests for the end of the year because it's given us something to fall back on."
You've always been able to run well at Atlanta, but finishing well has been another matter. What areas are you and the team working on to improve your performance at Atlanta?
"During my rookie year, Atlanta was only my fourth Winston Cup race. We didn't have a lot of time in a Cup car yet, and to be able to run 11th was a good run for The Home Depot team. We had a top-five car when we came back in the fall, but we had a pit stop late in the race that cost us. I thought that we would be better last year just from the standpoint that we had more experience. We ran better, but we didn't finish better. We ended up wrecked in both races last year. We ran well this year back in March before the motor let go on us. We're confident that we can run well at Atlanta, because we've shown that we could do just that in our last couple of starts there. We just need to keep the car in one piece and make it to the finish. If we can do that, I think we'll be all right."
You're not one to count points during the course of the season. But with only two races remaining and the fact that you're currently third in the standings, do you start counting points now?
"Yeah, we've been counting points for a while now, to be honest. When you're out there during the race you pay attention to the guys that you're racing with in points and you don't really worry about the other guys. You still go out and do the best you can and get as many points as you can, but you don't take any chances around guys who don't factor in to where you are in the point standings. Everything you do throughout the course of the year is to get you into this kind of situation in the standings, so you don't want to do anything to jeopardize it at this point in the season. We're third right now, but we're not that far away from second. Second in points is worth about $350,000 more than finishing third, plus it means a lot to us as a team if we're able to finish second. But we can't get too far ahead of ourselves either. Sterling Marlin isn't too far behind us, and you know he's gunning for at least third, if not second. Really, depending on what happens, there could be a lot of movement throughout the top-10 in points. So we all need to be on our game, protecting what we've got and looking to get more."
Your teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Bobby Labonte, has enjoyed a lot of success at Atlanta Motor Speedway. How has the success of the #18 team helped you at Atlanta?
"You look at Bobby's record there and not only do they qualify well, but they race well. It makes the transition for me a lot easier because they have great notes for Atlanta. I know that when I go out in my Home Depot Pontiac, the setup is going to be fairly close to Bobby's to begin with."
Speeds at Atlanta are in the mid-190 mph range. Is that too fast, and is there any margin for error?
"It's a pretty fast race track. I think as time goes on and the track surface ages, the speeds will probably slow down some. Right now it's a pretty fast race track, and when you do hit the wall you hit it pretty hard. There's not much room for error simply because of how fast the track is. The faster you go the more race track you need to get your car back under control."
What's the trickiest part to making a quick lap at Atlanta?
"It's got its set of bumps. You need to make sure your car gets over the bumps but still turns well. Normally, if you turn after you hit the bumps, you're tight. If you turn before you hit the bumps, you're loose. Just finding that common balance - getting the car over the bumps but having it turn at the same time - that's what you're shooting for."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac:
How do you set your car up for 500 miles at Atlanta?
"We get our driver good and comfortable and run as consistently as we can through a full fuel run. When it comes to pit strategy, we don't really do two-tire stops. Tony doesn't like it, and every time we've done one, it never seems to help us out. We just try to make the car handle as best as it can. About the only strategy that works out there is fuel mileage at the end of the race."
What made you decide to use one of your last available test sessions at Atlanta?
"Atlanta is one of those tracks where we really haven't run as well as we would've liked. And when we look at where we're going to go test, I'll look at the places where we've run well and the places where we haven't run well. Atlanta falls into that second group, so the decision to go test there was an easy one. And all we wanted to do when we tested there was to get Tony comfortable. That way I'm better able to give Tony the setup that he needs to run well. We just went in there with the attitude that we were going to run a bunch of laps. We weren't worried about speed. We just wanted to build confidence - whether it was mine, Tony's or the team's. Now when we show up there, we'll have all of the information that we learned at that test and we can just worry about going fast."