Martinsville: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Make mine Martinsville ATLANTA (April 8, 2003) - There once was a time when Tony Stewart hated Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, so much so that the driver of the ...

Tony Stewart
Make mine Martinsville

ATLANTA (April 8, 2003) - There once was a time when Tony Stewart hated Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, so much so that the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series half-jokingly suggested filling the .526-mile oval with water and making it a bass pond.

But then in the fall of 2000, Stewart won at Martinsville, and his attitude slowly began to change. "Any time you can win a race on a short track you respect it," said Stewart from victory lane, "but especially when it's at a place like Martinsville."

Then in 2001, two new venues were added to the Winston Cup schedule - Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway. Both were 1.5-mile D-shaped ovals, and they joined similar layouts in Las Vegas, Fontana, Calif., and Brooklyn, Mich. While Fontana and Brooklyn are both two miles in length, they're very much related to their 1.5-mile brothers.

For Stewart, a guy who grew up racing on tracks of dirt and pavement in all sorts of configurations, racing at five different venues that all have the same layout is just unimaginative.

Said Stewart before heading to Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in March: "We need more Richmonds. We need more Bristols and Martinsvilles and Darlingtons. We need variety in this series. We don't need to keep racing at a mile-and-a-half oval every week for 500 miles. We need to race somewhere different."

And different is exactly what Martinsville embodies. It's the smallest track on the circuit - one that's tough on equipment and on the body. It's not easy racing there, never mind winning. But that's the way Stewart likes it. He has one win and two poles at the paperclip-shaped track, and he's angling for more in Sunday's Virginia 500.

With all of the 1.5-mile D-shaped ovals the Winston Cup Series visits these days, do you now appreciate the uniqueness of Martinsville more than you did when you first went there as a rookie in 1999?

"Absolutely. I enjoy and look forward to going to Martinsville. I'm tired of racing at mile-and-a-half tracks, especially when track position is such a big part of what we do on the mile-and-a-halves. To me, going to a place like Martinsville is a welcome sight. 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 (Va.) 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."

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 Martinsville. 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."

Martinsville seems to be a physically demanding race track. How so?

"The air doesn't circulate really well there. So, carbon monoxide is a big issue. It is a physically demanding race. It's 500 laps around a track that is extremely hard on brakes and tires, and it's easy to lose your cool there. Guys that can keep from beating their race car up and can keep a cool head all day normally wind up with a pretty good finish."

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Tony Stewart - Make Mine Martinsville Page Two

What do you do to combat the heat and fumes at Martinsville?

"There are all types of filters that teams have tried. I'm not sure there's anything that's fool-proof yet, as far as filtering everything out that we're trying to get out. Still, it's better than nothing. We all just try to do as much research as we can in trying to find the things that are best for us."

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."

Bumping at a short track like Martinsville is to be expected. But where is the line drawn between what's acceptable and what isn't?

"Everybody knows that we're going to get bumped around. I got bumped by Elliott Sadler at Bristol and spun down toward the infield. It wasn't his fault. It was just the circumstances that occur when you're racing at short tracks. The same thing happened to me. I bumped Bobby Labonte, who's my teammate. I didn't do that on purpose. It happened because someone checked up in front of him and I didn't see Bobby check up. Everybody knows that happens. All the drivers at this level have raced long enough to know when something is intentional and when it's not."

If you make a mistake, depending on the circumstances, is it proper to let off the throttle, let the guy you hit gather his car back up, and let him have his spot back before getting back to racing?

"There are a lot of times you'll do that, and if something happens where it's more severe than that - a guys spins or something like that - a lot of times the driver will radio their crew chief or their spotter and have their spotter tell the other guy's spotter what happened and that it wasn't intentional. Normally when you handle it like that, the problem is solved before it ever has a chance to get bad."

How hard is it 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."

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 of 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 Chevrolet."

-jgr/hdr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Elliott Sadler