TONY STEWART Be Cool ATLANTA (March 28, 2007) -- The Car of Tomorrow debuted last weekend at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and despite much hand-wringing and consternation, it performed exactly the way it was intended -- it went fast and turned...
ATLANTA (March 28, 2007) -- The Car of Tomorrow debuted last weekend at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and despite much hand-wringing and consternation, it performed exactly the way it was intended -- it went fast and turned left.
Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) took the Car of Tomorrow and did what it does best -- they made it go faster and turn left better than many of their counterparts. Problem was, mechanical glitches unrelated to the Car of Tomorrow's design thwarted the strong runs made by JGR's trio of drivers -- Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley.
JGR cars led 443 of the 504 laps available at Bristol (88.6 percent), but posted an average finish of 28th. Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet, led the brigade by leading four times for a race-high 257 laps. But a broken fuel pump cable derailed his dominant run, replacing his shot at career win No. 30 in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series with a 35th-place finish.
Even with the disappointing result, Stewart and Co. are cool. They're still 12th in points entering this weekend's Goody's Cool Orange 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, which 21 races from now would be good enough to make the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Martinsville marks the second race for the Car of Tomorrow, and if Bristol was any indication, Stewart and his JGR brethren will again be competitive.
Stewart has been competitive all season, despite having up and down results. Just five races into the 36-race marathon that is Nextel Cup, Stewart has led the most miles (466.82), the most laps (441) and has the highest driver rating (108.5) while still posting two finishes of 35th or worse.
With eight months of racing still ahead and an ocean of points to be earned, Stewart, crew chief Greg Zipadelli and the rest of The Home Depot Racing Team know that their strong runs will eventually pay off with equally strong finishes. And it will probably happen sooner rather than later, for Martinsville is a track where Stewart excels.
The two-time Nextel Cup champion is a two-time winner at Martinsville, and he returns to the .526-mile paperclip-shaped track as the defending winner of the spring race. Stewart has a total of nine top-10 finishes at Martinsville and has led 1,182 laps, which has been helped in large part by Stewart's ability to start up front. The nine-year Nextel Cup veteran has scored three poles at Martinsville and has six other top-10 starts.
While Martinsville's tight confines rattle some, Stewart stays cool -- a fine trait to have for the Goody's Cool Orange 500.
Despite your end result at Bristol, were you pleased with where Joe Gibbs Racing is with its Car of Tomorrow?
"Absolutely, and it's what made Bristol so hard to take. I mean, we were really, really good. It's rare when you have a car that good anywhere, never mind at Bristol. On our last stop before we had the problem with the fuel pump cable, all we did was change tires and put in fuel. Normally, you're making some sort of change, even something minor. But we didn't even mess with air pressure. The car was perfect. It made how the race ended for us hurt even more, but in terms of the confidence it gave us for where we are with the Car of Tomorrow, it let us know that we're where we needed to be. Granted, it's only one race, but to deal with so many unknowns and to have not just my car run well but all three Gibbs cars up front, it's a testament to the hard work everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing has put into the Car of Tomorrow."
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."
No matter what kind of race car you're driving, 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 No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Have you had a chance to diagnose what happened to the fuel pump cable at Bristol?
"It broke, plain and simple. But after looking at how it broke, we think we've found a way to make sure it doesn't happen again. That's what we do here. We push parts and pieces to their limits, and when they break, we find out why and make them better.
"It's a cable that gets driven off of the oil pump, that then runs to the fuel pump, which is in the trunk of the car. All of the Chevrolet teams are having to go with this setup, because with the new motor we'll be running (the Chevrolet R07), it doesn't have a fuel pump on it, so you can't run it old style.
"The way we have it set up, it's not new. We ran it the last 10 races last year, and the 18 car ran it in about 20-22 races. Our Busch cars ran it most of last year and all of this year, so it's not a new thing. We've been running it a lot, even at places we didn't have to just because we wanted to perfect the new system. Because once we start running the new engine, a cable driven fuel pump is all you can run."
Despite the result at Bristol, are you happy with where the No. 20 team is and really where all of JGR is in relation to the Car of Tomorrow? Did it give you a sense of relief, but also a sense of pride to see how well the No. 20, the No. 11 and the No. 18 cars ran before they had their mechanical problems?
"Yes. It did, but Bristol's an animal of its own. I think Martinsville and the next couple of races will be the true tale of do we have what we need figured out. We hit Bristol. We had a great car. The No. 11 had a great car. We don't have the finish to show how good are car really was. Some days it's more important where you finished then how you ran."
Were you surprised by how dominant you were? With all of the laps that you led and the dominating fashion in which you led, was that a surprise or was that more an affirmation of the work you and the team had put into the car?
"Without being cocky, I'd like to think it was due to everybody's hard work. I knew we had a good car when we unloaded on Friday. We were right in the ballpark. We qualified well. We went out early and still ended up fourth, which shows you how good the lap was. On Saturday we had a pretty good car in Happy Hour. After the first practice, we made some changes and we really hit on some things in Happy Hour that I think kind of separated us from most cars."
Prior to Bristol there was some concern with pit stops, because the Car of Tomorrow's dimensions changed the dynamic of the pit stop. With a full race's worth of pit stops under your belt, did you find that the pit stops changed a lot with the new car?
"We didn't change much. As far as making adjustments, it was a little bit harder on the right rear. Our tire changer would have had to make the wedge change if we needed it. Fortunately, our car was good enough we didn't have to adjust on it a lot. The guys did a great job adjusting to the overhang off of the wheel base. We've got some things that we want to try that I think will make us better. They did so well in practice just doing it the old fashioned way that we said we'd go the first two races like that. The pit stops are so important that I'd rather have a pit stop be a tenth, two-tenths, or a half-second slower, but know that it was going to get done right at Bristol and Martinsville then lose a bunch of track position. After Martinsville, we're going to try some different things to try to pick the speeds up, but some of the guys did a phenomenal job on Sunday with the car. I don't know how much better we can make them because they were pretty good already."