Las Vegas: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART A Half Mile of Difference ATLANTA (March 3, 2005) - The Feb. 27 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at California Speedway was supposed to be the first true test of the reduced rear spoiler height and the softer Goodyear tires that all...

A Half Mile of Difference

ATLANTA (March 3, 2005) - The Feb. 27 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at California Speedway was supposed to be the first true test of the reduced rear spoiler height and the softer Goodyear tires that all teams must employ on their fleet of race cars in 2005. Some found success while others found frustration.

Count the #20 Home Depot Racing Team in the camp of the latter. Driver Tony Stewart piloted an ill-handling race car throughout the 250-lap race at the 2-mile California oval, never advancing higher than 15th. His eventual 17th place finish required more effort than did many of his 19 career Nextel Cup victories.

So is the #20 team behind the curve? Did they miss something in preparation for the 2005 season? As ESPN College GameDay's Lee Corso might say, "Not so fast my friend!"

California, for whatever reason, has been an enigma to Stewart and Co. Since scoring three straight top-10 finishes in their first three races at California, the #20 team has not finished better than 16th in their five subsequent visits. But Las Vegas Motor Speedway - next up on the Nextel Cup docket with the March 13 UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 - wears the white hat to California's black hat.

While the #20 team has struggled at California, they've excelled at Vegas. The two tracks have similar layouts, as both are D-shaped ovals with sweeping corners capable of handling two- and three-wide racing. But Las Vegas is a half-mile shorter than California at 1.5-miles in length, and it seems to make all the difference.

Since finishing second at the 2000 Las Vegas race, Stewart has finished no worse than 12th. And in his three most recent visits to the desert oval, he's logged three straight top-five finishes and led a total of 121 laps out of an available 801 laps (15 percent).

It appears that the team's struggles at California are isolated to California, for the team's performance at Las Vegas has remained strong, even in the face of previous rule changes. Last year teams entered Las Vegas with rules changes similar to this year's - a smaller rear spoiler and a softer Goodyear tire, just not as pronounced as the changes mandated for 2005 - and still Stewart was able to lead four times for 45 laps before coming away with a solid third-place finish.

With an off-weekend to regroup and Las Vegas' friendly history beckoning, the #20 Home Depot Racing Team is primed for a rebound.

How is Las Vegas Motor Speedway different from California Speedway?

"The corners are tighter. It's tighter coming off turn four and tighter going into turn one than it is at California. That's why the handling is so important there. Because the corners are tighter, it makes it really important that The Home Depot Chevrolet rolls through there free - not tight or loose. It's a real important track in terms of balance."

What were some of the things you learned during your test at Las Vegas Feb. 2-3?

"Any time you have a new tire, especially when you take some spoiler away and take some downforce out of the car, there's a learning period. But I think that suits this Home Depot team well. We have a team that's capable of winning a championship this year because we don't have to rely on what made us successful last year. We can take a new set of circumstances and pinpoint all of the variables to find a new combination that works for us on the race track."

How was the feel of the car during that test?

"It moved around a little more. But you knew that with less downforce the car wasn't going to be stuck to the race track like it typically had been. It wasn't a surprise. We knew there were going to be some adjustments we'd have to make."

With the softer compound tire Goodyear is using at Las Vegas, what will tire wear be like?

"The performance of the tires has always fallen off at Vegas, but the new tire is falling off a little bit more, obviously. But that's a good thing. It's what a lot of us drivers have wanted for a long time because the fuel mileage and track position games we saw played in year's past have been taken out of the equation."

With the change in tire compound and the new aerodynamic package, is the racing back to where it was when you first started as a rookie in 1999, or is just another evolution of racing in the Nextel Cup Series?

"It's still too early to tell. I'm not sure it'll be exactly the way it was, but it will be a step toward how it used to be. In all reality, it'll be just another phase of how the competition side of this sport has evolved since I first came here."

A softer tire and a reduced rear spoiler height is something you've wanted for a while. Now that you have it, what do you think about it?

"I think it's a great idea. Now we have to budget our tires. We can't go out there and just run flat out the whole time, and with that comes a lot more passing. Guys who get in too big of a hurry and go out and abuse their tires early in a run will get passed by guys at the end of a run because they're more patient. When it was like that a few years ago, you saw a lot more passing and the racing just seemed to be better all around. By taking some downforce away from us and giving us some softer tires, it's given us a combination that's allowed us to race. We couldn't keep adding downforce to these cars and then at the same time ask Goodyear to go out and make a softer tire. That wasn't fair to Goodyear. The only way Goodyear could give us a softer tire was to take downforce away, and that's what we have now. So, I'm all for it."

Because the handling of the cars will change dramatically over the course of a race run, will drivers who have a background in dirt racing be better able to adapt to the changing handling characteristics of their race cars?

"We sure hope so, but it's still too early to know. All we have with this package is a race and a couple days of testing, and we were running by ourselves during those tests. There's still a lot to be learned."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:

An off-weekend was built into the schedule before the Las Vegas race. Did that help your race team's schedule in terms of building cars?

"We'll take weekends off whenever we can get 'em. I'm sure it'll help most teams. I know it'll help us because we have a few decent cars built, but we don't have as many as we'd like to. Having this off-weekend will allow us to get a lot done in the shop before we go to Las Vegas."

Were you happy to see an off-weekend this early in the season?

"Like I said, we'll take all the off-weekends we can get. It's hard to space out those off-weekends the way we'd like them to be. If it were me, I'd just look at the schedule and space them out as evenly as I could. But I don't have to deal with race tracks and weather. So we'll take this early gift, enjoy it, and in another couple of weeks we'll have another one. We've got a few of our off-weekends early this year, so we'll take advantage of them and hopefully they'll get us rested for the fall."

How much did the rules changes for 2005 affect car construction?

"With some of the cars we just cut the rear spoiler to the new specified height and others we built from scratch. We didn't want to take everything and start over, because you may not be able to get back to where you were. So we have some baseline configurations. We know they have a little less downforce but we know they're still good cars. We're kind of using them as guinea pigs to give ourselves something to compare ourselves to."

How did adding a third team affect your preparation for this season?

"We're doing the same thing that we did when we started the #20 team. The #18 team gave me some of their cars while we built some new ones. We're doing the same thing this time around. Each team gave the #11 team five cars, while they got five new ones, we got five new ones and the #18 team got five new ones. We've got a lot of cars built so we're in pretty good shape. Are they what we want? We don't know yet, because we haven't learned all there is to learn with the new spoiler rule and tire compound. They're based on what we believe to be true. Last year when we went to Las Vegas to test we didn't have a very good test. So we came back to the shop and cut up a bunch of stuff and made some changes. It worked out, because when we went back there for the race, we ran well and finished third and led a lot of laps. That's just part of the business - being able to adapt and having people that you can count on to get it done."


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart