Martinsville: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Curb Your Enthusiasm ATLANTA (April 8, 2004) - A driver's enthusiasm about competing at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway is always tempered by the bump-and-grind nature of racing around the track's incredibly small confines. Forty-three...

Tony Stewart
Curb Your Enthusiasm

ATLANTA (April 8, 2004) - A driver's enthusiasm about competing at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway is always tempered by the bump-and-grind nature of racing around the track's incredibly small confines. Forty-three cars snake around the .526-mile oval - the shortest track on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule - and they inevitably run into something, be it each other, the outside retaining wall or the curbing that lines the apron of the corners.

Even without any contact, 500 laps of hard acceleration followed by equally hard braking takes a toll on a driver's equipment. The 800-foot long straightaways dump drivers into tight corners banked at only 12 degrees, putting a premium on brake technology. Drivers must balance their need for speed by conserving their brakes for 263 miles. If they can't slow themselves down enough to drive through the corner, then their exit off the corner suffers, and their overall lap is drastically slower. It's a vicious cycle that's typical Martinsville. But after 55 years of NASCAR visiting the southern Virginia track, teams are quite used to it.

After a break for the Easter weekend, the April 18 Advance Auto Parts 500 at Martinsville is the next stop for Nextel Cup Series competitors. And even though the 2004 season has brought a myriad of changes to the sport - a revised point system, a new title sponsor in Nextel, a new fuel sponsor in Sunoco and a new tire and aerodynamic package - racing at Martinsville remains unchanged.

For Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, that's a good thing. He's a former race winner at Martinsville, having taken the checkered flag in the 2000 NAPA AutoCare 500. Stewart won that race from the pole with a track record qualifying time of 19.855 seconds at 95.371 mph - a mark that still stands to this day. In the six races since, Stewart has scored four top-10 finishes, two of which were third-place results. Solid efforts in all, but Stewart and Co. will be looking for more when the eighth race of the season commences at Martinsville

How does the curb around the inside of Martinsville's corners affect your racing line?

"At times you can use it to your advantage, but most of the time it's a disadvantage to get on the curb. Either way, you always have to run right up against the curb. It's like standing on the edge of a cliff. If you get around it just right you get a pretty nice view. If you go overboard, you're going to fall."

What happens to your race car when you hit the curb?

"The biggest thing that happens is that it de-wedges the car. It puts a lot of cross weight from the left front to the right rear tire, and when that happens the car gets really, really loose. And when you get that loose, you typically spin out while four guys behind you pile into each other before they hit you."

Where do you have the potential to hit the curb?

"Mainly through the middle of the corner is where you want to stay right up against the curb. But as tight and short as those corners are, you're right on that curb for a long time. It's kind of like driving by brail. You feel the curb when you get to it, and you do it so many times that it's easy to rub the Goodyear letters off the tires. But if you have a car that can get down there and you can knock the letters off the tires because you can stay down there consistently, then you've got a good driving race car. But Martinsville has a pretty good outside groove now too, so if you're worried about hitting the curb you can at least get in that outside groove and make some good time as well."

Martinsville and Bristol (Tenn.) seem to have a lot in common. They're both short tracks, where good days seem to be great and bad days seem to be horrendous. Is that a fair assessment?

"They're the kind of tracks where if you have a good qualifying run and you have a great race car, then the race is a lot of fun. If you have a car in the race that's not driving well and you have a bad qualifying run and a bad pit selection and you end up fighting the car all day, then a place like Martinsville becomes a very tough track. But that's also one of the reasons why when you do win there it means so much. Plus, their grandfather clock is one of the coolest trophies around."

You used to hate racing at Martinsville, but now you seem to tolerate it. What prompted the change of heart?

"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."

Brakes are incredibly important at Martinsville. How does a driver conserve his brakes for 500 laps?

"You try to stay off the brakes as much as possible. You always hear the crew chief talking about floating the car into the corner, and what they mean by that is instead of driving it really deep into the corner and using a lot of brake pressure, the theory is to lift a little earlier and use less brake pressure. You'll end up running virtually the same lap time as you would if you drove hard into the corner. But when you've got a 500-lap race at Martinsville and you've got to use the brakes hard twice a lap, that's 1,000 times during a race where you're asking that brake system to slow down a 3,400-pound race car. If you can be easy on those brakes for the first half of the race or first three-quarters of the race, then when you really need those brakes to battle for the win at the end - you've got 'em."

JASON SHAPIRO, brake specialist on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:

Heat seems to be a brake system's worst enemy. What do you do to combat the heat?

"That's a never-ending process. When we really started hammering these brakes about 10 or 12 years ago, the fluid was a problem because it would actually boil. Eventually, the manufacturers got the fluid up to snuff. Then it evolved to where the brake seals were burning out. Well, we got that fixed. Then it came down to caliper stiffness, and we got that worked out. Now we've got a pretty solid package - most all brake manufacturers do. AP, the manufacturer we use, is in our opinion a little bit more solid in the short track area. Today we're just refining what we've got, trying to figure out ways to run even cooler here or there. It's a constant evolution."

Is Martinsville the race venue where you work closer with the driver when compared to other race venues?

"Yes, I'll work really close with him, for two reasons. First, you've got to stop - plain and simple. The other thing is that how you set your brake bias can affect your handling. Brakes and chassis work hand-in-hand at Martinsville. One won't work well enough without the other to be competitive."

How does a driver conserve his brakes for 500 laps around Martinsville?

"I think it's important to slow down before you get to the corner and not charge the corner. That's key to a good lap time. There are times, however, when you've got to do what the other guy in front of you is doing in order to pass him, and that's when you abuse your brakes. You end up running into the corner harder because you've got to out-brake him going down the straightaway to get next to him. But the way you conserve your brakes is by slowing down in a straight line, getting off the brake, coasting through the center of the corner and then getting back on the gas. That's going to be better on the brakes and you're generally going to have a better lap time."

When the team travels to restrictor plate venues, the #20 team's engine specialist - Roger Purcell - is usually seen pacing the pit area. With brakes being such an issue at Martinsville, is that your time to pace the pits?

"Yeah, it is. Every time we go to Martinsville I take five years off my life. It's difficult, but you've got to do it. It's like going to the doctor to get a shot. You know you don't want to, but you know you need to."

Do you look forward to Martinsville because it's such a challenge to the brake system?

"I do, because I think our team uses tracks like that as one of our strengths. Every one of us works hard in our specific areas. The engine room makes good power that'll last all day long. Our chassis development is excellent on short tracks. And our brakes have to be top-notch, or else all that work goes for naught."

On the Mondays after Martinsville when you're back at the race shop and you take the wheel off, have you ever been shocked at what your brakes look like after 500 laps?

"We try to end the race with a half a brake pad left. If we ever get into an issue where we knock part of the nose off and we lose some of our cooling, there is a cushion in place. But when I open up that wheel and there's not a half a pad, I get a little scared."


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart