Home Depot Racing Rockingham II preview

TONY STEWART Racing at The Rock ATLANTA (Oct. 30, 2001) - Aerodynamics are to Daytona (Fla.) as ____________ are to Rockingham (N.C.). While not a question that would appear on the SATs anytime soon, the correct answer would be tires. Tires...

TONY STEWART
Racing at The Rock

ATLANTA (Oct. 30, 2001) - Aerodynamics are to Daytona (Fla.) as ____________ are to Rockingham (N.C.). While not a question that would appear on the SATs anytime soon, the correct answer would be tires.

Tires are the common denominator at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. The 1.017-mile oval located in the sand hills region of North Carolina is notorious for chewing up tires. Its rough surface stems from its environment - an area close to the coast where the soil is predominantly sand.

That sand blows onto the race track, where it acts as a grinding agent when hot, sticky Goodyear tires meet the surface. The result is 43 drivers complaining that their tires are worn out, with their respective crew chiefs imploring them to do whatever they can to save their tires until their next pit stop - which is never soon enough. It's a scenario that plays out for 393 laps, with whoever manages their tires the best usually emerging as the victor.

That's just what Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team plan on achieving this weekend in the Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 at Rockingham - the fourth to last race of 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season.

Rockingham has always been a track that's tough on tires. But with this new generation of Goodyear tire being so hard, is tire wear as big an issue at Rockingham as it has been in the past?

"It's still hard on tires, but the tires just don't start off as quick. The performance still falls off, but not near as bad as it used to. But the good thing is that it does fall off, and that's what has been the strong suit of our series. When a guy's handling goes away and he doesn't have the performance of his tires to fall back on, that's when he'll slow down. And that gives other drivers, where if they have a car that's driving well, the opportunity to pass. We went to some places this year, like Bristol (Tenn.), where the performance of the tires didn't fall off and you could run 140 laps on a set of tires. As long as you were in front of someone, the guy behind you couldn't get around you because he just wasn't quick enough. Having the performance of the tires fall off is a part of what makes Rockingham's race so much fun for us, because when the tires wear out, the driver has to step up."

Is it safe to say that you run well when the performance of the tires fall off, typically toward the end of a run?

"I think so. We don't always focus on how fast we can make our car for two or three laps. Instead, we look for what'll make The Home Depot Pontiac good for a long run. I think that's been one of our strong suits - making sure that our car is good throughout the run, especially through the middle stage of a run in relation to how fast we can go and what kind of a pace we can maintain."

Explain a lap around Rockingham.

"The two ends of the track are pretty different from one another. They look, geometrically, about the same. The entry into (turn) one is a little bit wide, and it gets tight off of (turn) two. But it's just the opposite in (turns) three and four. Once you get into three you can pretty much get in the gas pretty hard, especially if you're on fresh tires. Then you can run through four really hard. Compare that to (turns) one and two, where you can run in there a little harder, but it's a little trickier coming off of two. It's definitely got its own unique set of challenges, but that's what makes Rockingham a fun race track."

What does it take to get around Rockingham quickly?

"Making sure the car has a really good balance to where you're not having to use the tires up by leaning on them hard to go fast. If you can get the car driving well enough that you can run a good pace without pushing the car, then normally halfway through a run you're really good and you're really starting to pull away from guys whose cars aren't quite as balanced as yours. They're having to use up their tires a little more than you."

What do you do if your car isn't balanced?

"You just make sure you don't lean on them (tires) any more than you have to. If you have to run hard to keep the pace, then you have to run hard. But you just try to be as easy on them as you can, maybe be smoother on the race track by finding a line that's a little less abrasive by changing the balance of the car. There are some spots on the track that'll make your car freer and some that'll make it tighter. Depending on what your car's balance is doing, you need to move around on the race track to help it out."

You're not one to count points during the course of the season. But with only four races remaining and the fact that you're currently third in the standings, do you start counting points now?

"Yes. 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."

-HDR-

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart