Martinsville: Tony Stewart preview

Fast Clips at 'The Clip' ATLANTA (March 28, 2006) - Tony Stewart turned some pretty fast clips around the paperclip-shaped Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last year. In the two NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races held at the .526-mile oval, Stewart led...

Fast Clips at 'The Clip'

ATLANTA (March 28, 2006) - Tony Stewart turned some pretty fast clips around the paperclip-shaped Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last year. In the two NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races held at the .526-mile oval, Stewart led 530 of the 1,000 laps available, earning him the best running position (3.784) of any other Nextel Cup driver.

Stewart was just plain fast at The Clip's spring and fall 500-lap races. He was the fastest driver early in a run, as his average speed of 92.950 mph was almost two-tenths quicker than that of his nearest pursuer Jeff Gordon. Stewart was quick on restarts too. In the two green flag laps immediately following a restart, Stewart's average speed was 91.864 mph, a tenth-and-a-half faster than the second quickest driver on restarts - Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin.

Despite those gaudy numbers, Stewart still came up short in the win column.

With victory seemingly in hand at last year's spring race, a broken right front wheel on lap 431 spoiled a dominant run. After leading four times for a race-high 247 laps, the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet was forced to pit road, relegating Stewart to a 26th place finish, seven laps down to Gordon the race winner.

In Stewart's return to Martinsville for the fall race, payback seemed imminent. The 24-time race victor stormed to the pole and set a new track record - 19.306 seconds at an average speed of 98.083 mph. It was Stewart's 10th career pole and his third at Martinsville, and it set the stage for another dominant run. Stewart went on to lead seven times for a race-high 283 laps, but finished second to Gordon, who successfully gambled that track position was better than pitting for four fresh tires late in the race.

"In the short picture, when you lead nearly 300 laps you'd like to win the race," said Stewart as Gordon celebrated in victory lane - again. "But in the big picture, we are where we need to be right now and did the things we needed to do today, so we can't be too disappointed."

As Stewart left Martinsville with his point lead intact, doing the things he needed to do netted him the 2005 Nextel Cup championship four races later at the season finale in Homestead (Fla.). He became the first and only driver to win a championship under the new style Chase point system and under the classic, non-chase point system. Stewart captured the 2002 title, one year before the advent of the Chase.

The two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion is in familiar territory as he returns to Martinsville for Sunday's DIRECTV 500. He is ninth in points entering round six on the 36-race schedule thanks to two top-fives and 397 laps led. The lion's share of those laps came last Sunday at the .533-mile Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, where Stewart led eight times for a race-high 245 laps. And if Bristol is any indication, Stewart's short track acumen appears just as strong as it did last October at The Clip.

You led 530 of the 1,000 laps available last year at Martinsville, but a win eluded you. Do you feel the track owes you anything?

"No race track ever owes you anything.  Victories aren't given to you.
You earn them.  Martinsville doesn't owe me anything."

Martinsville and Bristol 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."

From a driver's standpoint, is it a big deal to have back-to-back short track races?

"No, not at all. We're used to it. By the time drivers get to this level, they're used to challenges like that. The only thing that's difficult about having back-to-back short track races is that if you had a problem with someone at Bristol, you're going to remember it at Martinsville. That's about the only negative to it. But the schedule is the schedule. I don't really think it makes any difference."

You tested at Lakeland (Fla.) March 21-22 in preparation for Martinsville. How did it go?

"Lakeland is kind of a tough place to get a gauge on how you're going to run somewhere. It's not like any place on the Nextel Cup schedule. It's kind of a cross between Martinsville and Richmond (Va.). When we test Lakeland it's in preparation for those two tracks, and it's more to test parts and pieces on the race car - like brakes - than it is to set the car up. But we still learned a lot, and hopefully when we get to Martinsville we'll see the rewards from the test."

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."

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

It seems as though Martinsville is one of the tracks most often mentioned as a place that really affects the point standings, because the track tends to produce so many variables that are out of a team's control. Do you agree with that?

"Yes, because at Martinsville you can get tore up real easily and you can have a problem on pit road real easily. You can go to Martinsville and qualify well, get one of the two or three good pit stalls that are available, have a good enough car to run up front all day, but have something totally out of your control ruin your day. Martinsville is the type of place where if something can happen, then it will happen to somebody, somehow. Plus, tempers and things tend to get stirred up there and it's really easy to get caught up in someone else's mess. Hopefully, we'll stay fast and get through it all and get a good finish."

Does Martinsville's quirkiness play to the strengths of The Home Depot Racing Team?

"Running well at Martinsville is all about the attitude you have when you walk in the gate Friday morning. That will dictate whether you have a good weekend or a bad weekend. I really think it boils down to that. As soon as you get frustrated, you get behind. Martinsville is one of those places where you can't ask your driver to drive harder, because that's what'll get you in trouble. Track position has always been a big deal, so qualifying well is important, not only in terms of where you'll start on the race track but for pit selection as well."

Brakes never seem to be an issue for your driver at Martinsville. How so?

"Honestly, our brakes have never been better. The key is to have a car where the driver is able to get off the brakes real early and then just let it roll through the center of the corner. The problem comes when the car doesn't roll and it doesn't turn. The driver has to drive it in deeper, use more brakes, and then you end up with no brakes. Last year our brake temperatures were the best they've ever been. That's because our car drove really well."

-jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Denny Hamlin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing