Martinsville II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Sky Falls, Pigs Fly, Stewart Likes Martinsville. ATLANTA (Oct. 15, 2002) - One of the above statements is true, despite many, longtime reports to the contrary. But by mere process of elimination, you'll have the correct ...

TONY STEWART

Sky Falls, Pigs Fly, Stewart Likes Martinsville.

ATLANTA (Oct. 15, 2002) - One of the above statements is true, despite many, longtime reports to the contrary. But by mere process of elimination, you'll have the correct answer.

Here are some helpful hints. Look up. Sky - still there. See any pigs? Nope. Which leaves us with the unfathomable - NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver Tony Stewart, pilot of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac, likes racing at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

Yes, you read that correctly. After describing Martinsville as "a parking lot with curbs" and suggesting that improvements to the .526-mile oval entail "making it a strip mall" or "filling it with water and making a bass pond out of it," Stewart has come to appreciate the 55-year-old race track. Thanks in large part to almost four years of Winston Cup experience that includes seven career Martinsville starts, Stewart has come to embrace Martinsville for its back to basics nature, albeit grudgingly.

What appeals to Stewart is that racing at Martinsville is not about what car has the best wind tunnel numbers or which team is currently producing the most horsepower. It's about which team and which driver does the best job of getting their car to handle while keeping their car out of trouble. Which means for this Sunday's Old Dominion 500, racing will take the place of politicking.

Never a good politician, Stewart lets his racing speak for him. In that sense, he's spoken quite loudly at Martinsville, as one win, two poles and four top-10 finishes dot his track resume. Those numbers are surely to be improved upon, as Stewart comes to Martinsville with eight top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts - five of which were top-three results.

After years of referring to Martinsville as a "parking lot with curbs" and suggesting that "they fill it with water and make a bass pond out of it," you've come to appreciate the .526-mile oval. What happened to change your mind?

"It's just good short track racing. With aerodynamics being such a big part of our sport now, Martinsville is probably the only place left on the schedule where if you knock the front end off the car you can go on and still win the race. You can't go anywhere else on the circuit and do that. You can't go to Richmond and do that. Not even at Bristol (Tenn.) can you get away with that. But at Martinsville, if you have a good driving car while the front of it looks like an old modified, you can still win the race."

But the propensity to have the front end knocked off your car was one of the things that made you dislike racing at Martinsville. What gives?

"You learn how to protect the car. You learn how to not beat it up. You learn it's a lot more fun racing when you use a lot more patience. Patience seems to be the biggest variable that can hold you up at a place like that. Needless to say, after going there a couple of times, I've learned how to be patient - out of necessity, basically."

How important has your crew chief - Greg Zipadelli - been in helping you be patient through the course of a race at Martinsville?

"He's been really good, especially from the aspect that he knows that when we're at a track like that, he knows what to look for with my driving style, as far as how I might overdrive the car. He'll coach me along during a run to take care of my race car and to not overdrive it. So, to have him on the radio is a big comfort to me."

How hard is to hit to concentrate at Martinsville on hitting your marks, when you've got to hit your marks 500 times?

"You aren't going to hit your marks every lap. It's very hard. But if you get a car that drives well, it makes life a lot easier. If your car is a little bit off, then it seems like it's way off. It's probably one of the hardest tracks on the circuit to get the balance of your car really, really good."

How easy of a day can you have at Martinsville if your car is good? How hard of a day can you have at Martinsville if your car is bad?

"I wouldn't say that it's an easy day if your car is good, but it's tolerable. If your car is off, it makes for a very, very, very long day, and it can be a very frustrating day on top of that. Again, making sure the balance of the car is good makes you stay patient and calm for the duration of the race."

Are Martinsville and Bristol the same from a physical standpoint?

"You're running a lot faster through the corners at Bristol, so the g-loads are a lot higher there. At Martinsville, it's more of a mental challenge rather than a physical challenge. Your muscles are sore because for 500 laps, you just tense up. You're running so close to people all day long and it's easy to bump into the guy in front of you or get bumped into from behind. There's so much that can happen. It just drains you."

When you're racing at Bristol and there's a wreck, it tends to slide down the race track because of the banking. But what about Martinsville? Where do wrecks tend to wind up?

"You never know where they're going to go. Sometimes they slide up. Sometimes they don't slide out of the way at all. Sometimes they slide down to the inside. It's really unpredictable, and even if it happens four or five cars in front you, you're most likely going to get caught up in it somehow just because you're racing so close together. It's a tricky track to get around all day for 500 laps without getting some kind of battle scar on The Home Depot Pontiac."

Where does the grandfather clock you won at Martinsville two years ago compare with all of the other trophies you've won so far in your career?

"It's the most unique of any of the trophies I've ever received, for sure. It sits in the office at my house. They delivered it, set it up and showed me how to make all the bells and whistles work. It's a neat reminder for every time we get ready to go to Martinsville of what the prize is for winning."

Japanese driver Hideo Fukuyama will be attempting to make his second career Winston Cup race at Martinsville. What can he expect and what kind of advice would you give him?

"I've got a feeling that Friday will be the longest day of his life. Perhaps the best thing he could do is to enjoy one of those red, Martinsville hot dogs before practice, because that might be the only thing he enjoys all weekend. If his first trip to Martinsville was anything like mine, the hot dog will be the best part of his day."

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

Tony mentioned that a big reason for his patience behind the wheel is your voice on his radio.

"I think it's been a matter of me getting to know Tony better, as well as always trying to do a better job of communicating with him. When you're in one of these cars, you're focused on certain things, mainly driving as hard as you can, but sometimes at some places that's not necessarily what it takes. Being smooth, being consistent and hitting your marks will sometimes pay off more than driving the hell out of your race car. Tony's one of those guys who wants to drive and run hard, but there's certain places like Martinsville where that's not always the thing to do. When he won that race at Martinsville, he really did everything that we asked him to, and it paid off."

-jg/hd-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Hideo Fukuyama