ATLANTA (April 13, 2001) - The NASCAR Winston Cup Series takes a much deserved weekend off this Easter holiday before heading to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for the April 22 Talladega 500. As the second restrictor plate race this season and...
ATLANTA (April 13, 2001) - The NASCAR Winston Cup Series takes a much deserved weekend off this Easter holiday before heading to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for the April 22 Talladega 500.
As the second restrictor plate race this season and the first since the season-opening Daytona 500, the 500-mile Talladega event has proven to be a controversial subject in terms of the standard garage area chatter.
While the Daytona 500 featured an unbelievable 49 lead changes and exciting racing, some would argue that it became too exciting. An 18-car pileup on lap 174 saw The Home Depot Pontiac of Tony Stewart become airborne before landing on the roof of another car and barrel rolling to a stop midway down the backstretch.
Despite the obvious severity of that accident, it paled in comparison to the tragedy that occurred in the final corner of the final lap of the sport's biggest race.
There, in an accident that didn't seem near as horrific as the one that preceded it roughly 30 laps earlier, Dale Earnhardt died after making abrupt, nearly head-on contact with the turn four wall.
Losing the icon of NASCAR changed the sport forever, and the reverberations created by Earnhardt's loss still resound throughout the motorsports community.
In recent weeks, those reverberations have increased as the Talladega event has neared. The race is, for all intents and purposes, the closest thing to the kind of driving conditions competitors experienced back at Daytona. Many wonder, openly and privately, what the second round of restrictor plate racing will have in store.
There's been a lot of speculation regarding this race at Talladega. What's your take on going back to a restrictor plate track after all that happened back at Daytona?
"It's just another race to me. As far as my accident is concerned - it was a racing accident. It's over with and I'm fine. I'm very thankful to the man upstairs that I am. Our team has one of the safest cars out there. We had engineers who specialize in analyzing those types of crashes come to the race shop after Daytona to look at our Daytona car, and they said that it was the best car they had seen preparation-wise as far as safety was concerned. That makes me feel really good and confident as a driver that if I'm ever put in that same situation again that everything will come out the same way. I'm a race car driver, and I know what can happen every time I get in the race car and go out on the race track. If something happens - it happens. But I have the confidence knowing that my team and I have done everything that we can do to prevent something bad from happening."
The crash you had at Daytona was also quite serious. When you're involved in an accident like that, is there any hesitation to get back in a race car?
"No, not at all. If anything, it gives me more confidence to get back into The Home Depot Pontiac knowing that it's as safe as any engineer has ever seen for a Winston Cup car. You know, it's just part of racing. I won't think about me as much as I'll think of Dale (Earnhardt) and his family. The unfortunate thing is that we have to go on, and I think that everyone has done that so far, but at the same time there's still part of it that's going to be hard to deal with when we go to Talladega. But I think that he'd want us to go on and do the best that we all can. And that's what we'll do."
Did your experience in racing sprint cars, where the tendency to become airborne is much greater, perhaps prepare you better for the accident you had at Daytona?
"Well, I've been upside down in sprint cars and midgets all my life. But I'm not sure that anything prepares you for the wrecks that you have at a superspeedway that's a two-and-a-half mile oval. It seems like it's never going to end. Where my accident (at Daytona) started and where it ended was longer than most of the race tracks that I've flipped out of during my sprint and midget car days. It was definitely and eye-opener, but it wasn't anything to get so worked up over that I felt like we needed to do anything about it. We just need to go out and do our job each week just like we have been. Whatever happens - happens, but we just need to do the best job we can of keeping stuff like that from happening."
Do you feel that there is a heightened sense of awareness going into Talladega just because of everything that transpired at Daytona?
"No, I think the crews will be doing the same things they always do because safety has always been an important issue. They've always done a good job, so I don't feel like they have to do anything extra. As long as they keep doing what they've been doing than everything's good."
During the driver's meeting at a restrictor plate race, patience is highly emphasized. After all that transpired at Daytona, will more people take the message of patience to heart this time around?
"We're racers. We all want to win and we all want to be successful. We're all going to drive to win. When we're given the set of circumstances that we're given to go there, it gives everyone a lot of confidence when they get that big run on the car in front of them. It's going to be the same show it always has been."
What are you doing during your off-weekend?
"I'm going to Ohio to be with my World of Outlaws team. I'm going to go watch Eric Saunders, who's a young kid that I help out with his motocross racing - I'm going to watch him race on Sunday. The two nights before that I'll be in Rossburg, Ohio at Eldora Speedway watching the Outlaw car run."
Racing is your job, but is it also your escape?
"Yeah, it really is. I enjoy being able to go help out and be a crew guy and concentrate on doing what I can to help someone else go fast. It gets me away from the driving side for a day or two."
Is the off-weekend a blessing, in that there's time to relax before going to
Talladega? Or is it a detriment, in that by not racing, you're forced to
think about going to Talladega?
"It's not really on my mind. I don't have a wife and kids to spend the holiday with, so I'm just as happy to go to the race track to be honest. I just like to stay active in racing. To me, it won't be like work and it won't be like a day at the office. It'll be like a day off." <pre> TONY STEWART'S TALLADEGA PERFORMANCE PROFILE Year Event Start Finish Status/Laps Laps Led Earnings 2000 DieHard 500 39 34 Accident/138 0 $53,835 Winston 500 5 27 Running/187 12 $56,465 1999 DieHard 500 8 5 Running/188 10 $59,855 Winston 500 5 6 Running/188 1 $60,875