ATLANTA (Sept. 30, 2003) - Kansas Speedway is one of five D-shaped ovals in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, with the others being Chicagoland, California, Michigan and Las Vegas. Cookie-cutter in nature, they were never very high on Tony Stewart's...
ATLANTA (Sept. 30, 2003) - Kansas Speedway is one of five D-shaped ovals in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, with the others being Chicagoland, California, Michigan and Las Vegas. Cookie-cutter in nature, they were never very high on Tony Stewart's list of favorite places.
"I don't know why all these cookie-cutter race tracks are being built," groused Stewart earlier this season. "How many of those do we have to go to? They're pretty unimaginative."
But throw in a total of 231 laps led, four top-10 finishes that include a second and a third, as well as a pole at Chicagoland in July, and perhaps racing at these cookie-cutter tracks isn't so bad, for those are Stewart's statistics heading into Kansas Speedway for Sunday's Banquet 400.
His 170th career Winston Cup start will mark his 26th start on a D-shaped oval. And in those previous 25 races, Stewart has led 364 laps. But the telling number regarding Stewart's performance is that 63.5 percent of those laps have been earned in 2003.
Stewart was dominant at California and Chicagoland, leading the most laps of any driver in both races. But an engine failure at California and a thirsty race car at Chicagoland prevented The Home Depot Racing Team from reaching victory lane. Stewart and Co. now look toward the 1.5-mile Kansas oval as retribution for those two races, and with two top-three finishes in as many weeks, momentum is on their side.
With back-to-back top-three finishes, has the #20 team finally turned a corner?
"I certainly hope so. I feel like we've run well all year, and until recently, we just didn't have the results to show for it. We still have two months left of racing, and there's a lot we can accomplish. We'll just focus on winning races and let the points take care of themselves."
Thanks to another year of racing and another year of aging, Chicagoland Speedway - Kansas' sister race track - seemed to turn into a pretty racy venue when the Winston Cup Series competed there in July. Will we see the same type of transformation with the track surface at Kansas?
"I'm somewhat optimistic they'll be the same. I'm hoping the track will widen out like it did at Chicago. At the beginning of the year I wasn't really looking forward to these types of races like I am now. But after the run we had at Chicago, I'm pretty excited about going to Kansas."
How does a race track get better with age?
"One winter with snow on the race track in Chicago, and the fact that we all ran right around the bottom the previous year, wore out the surface just enough that when we came back a second lane had developed. It had enough grip to where if we moved up there, we wouldn't lose any time to the cars that ran the shorter distance around the bottom."
Because of your strong runs at all the D-shaped ovals this year, is your confidence heightened going into Kansas?
"We were the fastest car on the track at Chicago and didn't win the race. We had the fastest car all day and we should've won. But knowing how good we were not only at the beginning of the race, but all the way through the race, makes me cautiously optimistic that The Home Depot team will have a great day at Kansas."
Kansas and Chicagoland look exactly alike. Are they?
"They're about as close as you can get to being the same. You aren't going to find any two tracks that are more identical than Kansas and Chicago. The only difference between the two tracks - the backstretch at Chicago is a little bit rounded while Kansas' is straight."
Why is it that races at D-shaped ovals seem to be won in fairly dominating fashion?
"As far as Chicago and Kansas are concerned, they're such momentum tracks that if you can keep your momentum up through the center of the corner and get your car driving good, you will really pull away from guys. If they have to slow down at all, they've lost all their speed for the next straightaway. And that's just a deficit you can't overcome if your car isn't driving the way you want it to. Guys who get their cars driving well can dominate there all day."
Despite their cookie-cutter nature, D-shaped ovals seem to allow for multiple racing grooves. Is that their saving grace?
"If you have the ability to move around and you don't have to follow guys to where the aero push comes into play, the more you're able to move around and help yourself as a driver makes those tracks fun."
Were you able to develop a following at Kansas because of all your USAC racing in the Midwest?
"The fans there are my kind of fans because they all follow sprint car racing. They know Danny Lasoski, my World of Outlaws driver, and me more from my time spent in sprint cars than anything else. They make our time spent in Kansas well worth it."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
It seems as though the #20 team has really stepped up its program at D-shaped ovals when compared to year's past. What's been the difference in 2003?
"I think last year we showed that we had made some pretty big improvements at those places. We were able to take our performances at places like Charlotte, Atlanta and Indy and apply them to Chicago, Kansas, Vegas, California and Michigan. And over the last couple of years it's also been experience on my part and Tony's part. I grew up on short tracks, and when we came into this series that's where we ran really well. Tony's adaptability of just being able to work a car and hustle it around a little bit probably favored the road courses and tracks like Martinsville and Richmond. But now with the way our motor program is set up along with our aero department, combined with how we're setting up our chassis, it's allowed us to take the stuff that we're doing and apply it everywhere we go. And from there, we just fine tune it.
It's confidence on my side, where I'm putting stuff underneath the car that I believe in. Whereas before, I was a little timid because I knew we were going 190 mph. It's a combination of a lot of things. I wouldn't put it on any one thing. I know Tony is a lot better at those race tracks than he was earlier. I know we're giving him better race cars now than we had earlier at those places. It wasn't that the cars were bad, it's just that we're a little better now. Our motor department has done a phenomenal job, and at any of those places horsepower is a big deal. And the other thing now is that we've got the same car as everyone else. In year's past we haven't had that. The Pontiac was a great car. We won a championship with it and a lot of races, but the way they've matched these bodies and templates this year certainly hasn't hurt us."
Do you feel that the work ethic you employed in working with the Pontiac suits you well now that you have a race car that's on equal footing with the other manufacturers?
"We've been able to take a lot of the stuff that we did in the past with the Pontiac and apply it to what we're doing today with The Home Depot Monte Carlo. It's shown to be good and it's shown some speed. We don't have to be anywhere near as aggressive, and it seems like the window of air that we have to work with is much bigger. If we're off a little bit, we can get it back to where we can work on it. With the Pontiac, that platform had to be just right. If you had a weather change or a lot of traffic or any other variable, it really played with the way the car handled. The Monte Carlo just doesn't seem to be that sensitive to those kinds of things."
Aerodynamics are obviously important at restrictor plate races, but how important have they become at venues like Kansas?
"All of our downforce stuff, be it our Richmond car or the type of car we run at Chicago, Fontana and Kansas - they all go to the wind tunnel. Aerodynamics aren't as important as they are at a restrictor plate track, but still, we're always trying to lessen the car's drag, because that's speed. And with downforce, you're talking about a car's balance - something that's very important at a place like Kansas. At a plate race, we're just looking for the motor department to give us the best motor they can. And the fab shop tries to build us a car with the least amount of drag possible. It's definitely harder building a speedway car, because you're looking for no more than two or three counts of drag. That's what separates the cars. Knowing that we can rely on our motors, our chassis setups and our aero package, and then to have a driver like Tony, we have four ingredients that make us good. If two or three of those ingredients are better than anyone else's, we can be competitive. In restrictor plate racing, you have to have everything right or you're not going to get your car competitive at the race track. Your car has to be right when you get there."
How do you balance horsepower with fuel economy?
"That's something we've struggled with a little bit this year. It's tough. You want to make all the horsepower you can, but that eats fuel. But I think we're doing a good job of trying to get our fuel mileage back on track."