Loudon: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Good at New Hampsha? You Betcha! ATLANTA (July 12, 2006) - How good was Tony Stewart last year at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon? After leading 405 of an available 600 laps to finish first and...

TONY STEWART
Good at New Hampsha? You Betcha!

ATLANTA (July 12, 2006) - How good was Tony Stewart last year at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon?

After leading 405 of an available 600 laps to finish first and second, respectively, in the two NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races held at New Hampshire, Stewart proved to be wicked good.

The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing made New Hampshire his personal playground en route to securing his second Nextel Cup championship. And staying true to The Home Depot's ad campaign of how the No. 20 team's home improvement projects help them perform on the race track, crew chief Greg Zipadelli and crew members from Joe Gibbs Racing are building a playground on Thursday in nearby Nashua with KaBOOM!, a national non-profit organization, to ensure that their New Hampshire success continues.

And while Zipadelli and Co. create a playspace at the YMCA of Greater Nashua's Camp Sargent, Stewart will hone his driving techniques on New Hampshire's 1.058-mile oval in a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour car.

The 2,610-pound, open-wheel, closed cockpit race car is a staple of New England motorsports, but far different from the familiar orange and black Chevrolet Monte Carlo Stewart typically pilots. Nonetheless, track time is track time, and Stewart plans to make the most of it.

He'll practice and qualify the Modified Tour car on Thursday before racing it on Saturday after final Nextel Cup practice. It will be the fourth different type of race car Stewart has driven at New Hampshire, as he's wheeled a Nextel Cup car, a NASCAR Busch Series car and an IRL IndyCar at the paperclip shaped track.

In each car, Stewart has found success. Two wins in Nextel Cup - July 2005 and July 2000. A second-place finish in 1998 in his only Busch Series start at New Hampshire. And an IndyCar win, also in 1998. In fact, winning with such regularity in the Granite State has produced a multitude of granite trophies in Stewart's home - so much so that visitors sometimes ask if masonry is one of his hobbies.

And while another granite outline of the state of New Hampshire could be had with a win in the Modified Tour car, it's the big prize - a victory in Sunday's appropriately named Lenox Industrial Tools 300 - where Stewart's sights are fixed.

When was the last time you ran a Modified?

"Thompson (Conn.) was the last place I've run a Modified (in 2003). And I ran a line that people said they've never seen anyone run before. But I've never, ever run a Modified Tour event. So, I guess that means I'll have to go to the rookie meeting."

Why are you running a Modified Tour car at New Hampshire?

"It's one of the Tour's biggest races of the year. Mark Chase, who works for us at Joe Gibbs Racing, it's his father's car that I'm running, and it's just something I've always wanted to do with Mark. I've raced with a lot of the Modified Tour guys at Thompson or down in New Smyrna (Fla.) at those races, but it'll be neat to say that I officially ran a Modified Tour race with them."

Explain a lap around New Hampshire.

"It's a big motor deal. With the corners being so tight, you've got to put a lot of gear in the car to get it up off the corner. Forward bite is always an issue there too - trying to get the car to go forward. So, it's hard to get up off the corners. Then you've got long straightaways where you can kind of relax a little bit. Coming into the corners, you use a lot of brake, and it's hard to not only get the car stopped, but to get it to turn. Then you go through that challenge all over again."

So, is a fast lap all about throttle control?

"No, not necessarily. A lot of times when you get in the gas, you're able to stay in the gas. It's just a matter of having a good enough handling car to where you can get into the corner, roll through the center, and then get in the gas and stay in the gas when you do get back in the throttle."

While you've won at New Hampshire, you've also had races where you've struggled. How can one race weekend turn out great and another turn into one you'd rather forget?

"If you miss on something it can be a miserable day. It seems like you don't see but three or four guys during the day that really hit it. That's what makes a day there miserable when you miss. It's just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day. And it seems like you can have bad track position, but if you have a car that drives well, you can drive your way to the front. It's not a situation you cringe at if you have a good driving car."

Is New Hampshire a good place to race?

"Obviously, I like it because I've had success there. But at the same time, it's a tough track to pass on. You can be a couple of tenths faster than a guy, but it still takes you 20 laps to get by him. There are other tracks on the circuit where it's hard to pass, but we still go out and put on good shows there, too. Every race at Loudon seems to be a pretty good race. So, I like it. I enjoy racing there even though it is hard to pass. But when you've got a good car, it's always fun to race."

Drivers have sometimes complained about New Hampshire's track surface. But it seems that in the last couple of years since the track's repaving in 1993 that there aren't anymore complaints. With the improvements the Bahre Family - owners of New Hampshire International Speedway - have made, is the track finally where it needs to be?

"Yeah, for sure. There's no issues of, 'Is the asphalt cured enough for what we need to do.' It's definitely where it needs to be. That part of it is comforting and it's a non-event to all of us. Every year we go back there, the track seasons more and the groove moves up and it moves down, which it makes it more conducive to two-wide racing.

"They've worked really hard. I didn't think they ever had a bad race track, but I applaud them for trying to make it better. They aren't passive people. They won't just let things be the way they are. They had a nice race track to begin with and they've tried to make it even nicer. They're always looking to improve the place."

Because New Hampshire is a difficult race track, are some drivers beat before they even make a practice lap because they have a negative outlook about the race track?

"It certainly doesn't help if someone has a bad attitude going in there. It kind of puts a strike against you, but I'm not going to say that you're already beat. There are tracks that I've been to that weren't my favorite tracks, but I still found a way to win there. You've just got to stay focused and work hard to find what it takes to be good."

Much has been made about Juan Pablo Montoya's impending switch to NASCAR. And now Danica Patrick is said to be eyeing a move from the IRL IndyCar Series to NASCAR. Why is NASCAR so highly regarded?

"It's the product. NASCAR has done a great job of building this series into what it is today. Not only is there a lot of desire for fans to come watch us race, but now there's more desire than ever from drivers outside of NASCAR to come here and race. Steady, consistent leadership and a great product are the reasons why the sport is so strong.

"It's a feather in NASCAR's cap to have Juan Pablo coming over here. He's won a title in Champ Cars. Won an Indy 500. Won in F1. And I don't think there's any reason to believe that he won't win here. He's extremely talented and he's already proven that he can win in different types of race cars. There will be an adjustment for him, for sure, but it's nothing he can't handle.

"And it's the same with Danica. She's very talented. You don't get to where she is in her career without talent. She's capable of winning races in the IRL and if she came to NASCAR she'd be capable of winning here too. It might take awhile, because there is a transition that has to be made from Indy cars to stock cars, but she could do it. I don't have any doubt about it."

What was the toughest thing to adapt to upon making the switch from open-wheel cars to stock cars?

"The physical weight of the cars. Midgets weigh 900 pounds. Sprint cars weigh 1,200 pounds. Silver Crown cars weigh 1,400 pounds. Indy cars weigh 1,550-1,600 pounds. Before NASCAR, the only other thing that I had driven that had any weight to it was an IMCA Modified and it weighed 2,400 pounds, as well as my late model which weighs 2,400 pounds. You go from those kinds of cars all the way to cars that weigh 3,300-3,400 pounds - that was probably the biggest adjustment."

What did you learn while driving midgets and sprint cars that contributed to your NASCAR success?

"I was used to driving cars with higher horsepower. The midgets didn't have a ton of horsepower, but the horsepower to weight ratio was around three-to-one. With a sprint car you've got about 800 horsepower, and they only weigh 1,200 pounds. Learning to deal with all that horsepower in the Nextel Cup car was something that was familiar to me already. Whereas, you go to a lot of the late model and sportsman divisions around the country and most of those people aren't used to dealing with that kind of horsepower."

-jgr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing