ATLANTA (Oct. 9, 2001) - News flash. There's something that Tony Stewart likes about racing at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. (Drum roll please.) It's the grandfather clock he earned for winning last year's fall race at the .526-mile...
ATLANTA (Oct. 9, 2001) - News flash. There's something that Tony Stewart likes about racing at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
(Drum roll please.) It's the grandfather clock he earned for winning last year's fall race at the .526-mile oval.
Okay, that's it.
Stewart's disdain for racing at Martinsville stems from his first test there as a rookie in April of 1999. He struggled mightily, insisting that he really didn't know what he was doing. Nonetheless, when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series made its first trip to Martinsville that year, Stewart placed his #20 Home Depot Pontiac on the pole.
Many people were surprised, but none more than Stewart. "To know where I was at that test and to sit on the pole a few weeks later still baffles me. A lot of the credit needs to go to Greg (Zipadelli, crew chief), because he knew what I needed more than I did."
Stewart wound up finishing 20th that day, as the glow from his pole-winning performance was gone. When he returned to the historic bullring for the series' second visit in October of that year, Stewart could only muster a 41st place finish.
Episodes like that prompted Stewart to offer up such gems as, "I wish they'd just fill the place up with water and put bass in there," "If I have a love/hate relationship with Martinsville, then we're missing the love part of the equation" and "It's like a parking lot with curbs around it."
Still, in three subsequent trips to Martinsville, Stewart has recorded a win and two other top-10 finishes, along with another pole. Stewart may not like the track, but his performance indicates otherwise
Where does the grandfather clock you won at Martinsville last fall compare with all of the other trophies you've won so far in your career?
"It's the most unique of any of the trophies I've ever received, for sure. It sits in the office at my house. They delivered it, set it up and showed me how to make all the bells and whistles work. It's a neat reminder for every time we get ready to go to Martinsville of what the prize is for winning."
Is Martinsville still just a "parking lot with curbs around it" or has winning given you an appreciation for the place?
"No, it's still a parking lot with curbs around it. But now it's a parking lot with curbs where if you win they give you a really nice grandfather clock. And they should give you something really nice after winning a race there.
"Martinsville is Martinsville. It's a lot like Darlington (S.C.). It's a tough surface to get a hold of, but it's got a lot of tradition and history behind it. So, any time you can win a race on a short track you respect it, but especially when it's at a place like Bristol (Tenn.) or Martinsville. Those are two really hard tracks to win at."
Is there anything you like about racing at Martinsville?
"I don't know. I definitely don't dislike it as much as I used to. Winning did help that. But I tell you what, the one thing that saves that place is the people who are there and the fans that are there. You can see 'em every time you're out there practicing. Every time you get into the car you can look across the fence and see them and they're yelling good luck to you. That's the only thing that saves that place in my opinion. But it's just a tough place. I mean, if I can get through that whole day without getting a scratch on The Home Depot Pontiac, it'll be a miracle."
How hard is to hit to concentrate at Martinsville on hitting your marks, when you've got to hit your marks 500 times?
"You aren't going to hit your marks every lap. It's very hard. But if you get a car that drives well, it makes life a lot easier. If your car is a little bit off, then it seems like it's way off. It's probably one of the hardest tracks on the circuit to get the balance of your car really, really good."
How easy of a day can you have at Martinsville if your car is good? How hard of a day can you have at Martinsville if your car is bad?
"I wouldn't say that it's an easy day if your car is good, but it's tolerable. If your car is off, it makes for a very, very, very long day, and it can be a very frustrating day on top of that. Again, making sure the balance of the car is good makes you stay patient and calm for the duration of the race."
Are Martinsville and Bristol the same from a physical standpoint?
"You're running a lot faster through the corners at Bristol, so the g-loads are a lot higher there. At Martinsville, it's more of a mental challenge rather than a physical challenge. Your muscles are sore because for 500 laps, you just tense up. You're running so close to people all day long and it's easy to bump into the guy in front of you or get bumped into from behind. There's so much that can happen. It just drains you."
Last year's fall Martinsville race was a demonstration of your patience. How important has Greg been in becoming more patient through the course of a race?
"He's been really good, especially from the aspect that he knows that when we're at a track like that, he knows what to look for with my driving style as far as how I might overdrive the car. He'll coach me along during a run to take care of my race car and to not overdrive it. So, to have him on the radio is a big comfort to me."
When you're racing at Bristol and there's a wreck it tends to slide down the race track because of the banking. But what about Martinsville? Where do wrecks tend to wind up?
"You never know where they're going to go. Sometimes they slide up. Sometimes they don't slide out of the way at all. Sometimes they slide down to the inside. It's really unpredictable, and even if it happens four or five cars in front you, you're most likely going to get caught up in it somehow just because you're racing so close together. It's a tricky track to get around all day for 500 laps without getting some kind of battle scar on The Home Depot Pontiac."
You'll be competing in a USAC Midget race at South Boston (Va.) Speedway on Saturday night. Talk about that.
"I think that's the first time USAC has been in that area other than going to Richmond (Va.). It was a great opportunity for me to go back and run for Steve Lewis and Bob East. Being able to take off after happy hour and get there on time and be able to do what we're going to do is just going to be a lot of fun. I had planned on trying to run both the Midget and the Sprint car, but with a 500-lapper at Martinsville the next day, I think driving a Midget will plenty of work for one night. If anything, just running the Midget will be an escape for a couple of hours. I'll just go, have fun, reset myself and see some people that I don't get an opportunity to see that much anymore."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac:
Tony mentioned that a big reason for his increased amount of patience behind the wheel is your voice on his radio. Talk about that.
"I think it's a matter of me getting to know him better, as well as always trying to do a better job of communicating with him. When you're in one of these cars, you're focused on certain things, mainly driving as hard as you can, but sometimes at some places that's not necessarily what it takes. Being smooth, being consistent and hitting your marks will sometimes pay off more than driving the hell out of your race car. Tony's one of those guys who wants to drive and run hard, but there's certain places like Martinsville where that's not always the thing to do. Last year at Martinsville he really did everything that we asked him to, and it paid off. I wish it were that easy all the time, but we still have a lot of growing to do as a team. This is still only our third year together, and the way I look at it, we're only going to get better."