Martinsville: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Harried at Martinsville? Not This Year ATLANTA (March 26, 2008) -- Tony Stewart comes into Martinsville (Va.) Speedway relaxed and refreshed after a rare off-weekend on the 38-race weekend NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. The ...

Harried at Martinsville? Not This Year

ATLANTA (March 26, 2008) -- Tony Stewart comes into Martinsville (Va.) Speedway relaxed and refreshed after a rare off-weekend on the 38-race weekend NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing is also a bit more aerodynamic, for the long hair he had sported since the end of last season is gone. Stewart's mane looks more like it did when he was a rookie in 1999. Perhaps prompting the retro style was the sting of having his back waxed, as Stewart underwent the painful process in the name of charity.

On March 17 during Tony Stewart Live on SIRIUS Satellite Radio, Stewart had to live up to the bet he made with friend and competitor Kevin Harvick nearly a year ago. On Friday of last year's spring Martinsville race weekend, Harvick dared Stewart to have his back waxed. Stewart took the dare, albeit with one caveat -- that $100,000 gets raised for Victory Junction Gang Camp. An impressive $125,000 was raised, and in turn, Stewart's back became hairless and the Victory Junction Gang Camp's coffers rose by six figures.

It's ironic that Stewart's stature is slightly less hairy as he returns to a race track known for its harried racing. The .526-mile Martinsville Speedway is known for its less-than-forgiving confines. Forty-three cars roaming the paperclip-shaped layout for 500 laps usually makes for a handful of sheet metal skirmishes and a driver's occasional angry gesture.

Yet, short track racing forms the foundation of NASCAR's 60-year heritage, and throwback racers like Stewart who will race anything with four wheels for the pure fun of it, relish the gritty style of racing Martinsville promotes.

How much so? Stewart has two wins at Martinsville and three poles, and has finished outside of the top-10 only eight times in 18 career starts. He's also led 1,193 laps, second only to Jeff Gordon, who in 30 career starts at Martinsville has led 2,466 laps.

And while the style of racing piques Stewart's interests, so does the trophy Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell gives to the race winner. An authentic grandfather clock made by Martinsville-based Ridgeway Clocks goes to the victor, a tradition dating back to 1964 when Fred Lorenzen won the Old Dominion 500.

With Stewart's last Martinsville victory coming in April 2006, he feels it's "time" to pick up a third grandfather clock when the checkered flag drops on Sunday's Goody's Cool Orange 500.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:

What made you decide to finally cut your hair?

"To be honest, I just woke up one morning and told one of my roommates, 'Today's the day. I'm going to get it cut.' There was no rhyme or reason for it. I just woke up that morning and decided to get my hair cut, and that was that. I kind of laughed about it myself because there wasn't anything that happened that made me do it. I just went ahead and did it. People who know me say I look 10 years younger now."

How is the aftermath of having your back waxed?

"It's already growing back. It's like a Chia Pet."

Is it a testament to NASCAR's popularity that the length of your hair and your hair follicles in general have become a topic of discussion?

"Yeah, it's kind of unbelievable, and it does say that the sport is popular because I never thought the length of my hair would ever gain so much attention."

You worked the ticket window at Martinsville for a few hours on March 12. How good of a salesman were you?

"The ticket office was busy. I think I almost sold out pole day, because almost everyone who came up had tickets for Sunday and just wanted to get something signed, but for me to sign something, they had to buy a ticket for pole day. The track had me working, and I couldn't come out of there without having sold anything. That would make me look bad. Plus, we sold about seven tickets to the Truck race and about 10 tickets to the Cup race. I thought I was a pretty decent salesman for someone not really qualified to be a salesman. Guess that's why I didn't get a percentage. But I do get to park my motorcoach in the bus lot, so I guess it's an even trade."

Short track racing has been known for beating and banging, where contact between two cars usually results in at least one car getting spun out. But has the current generation race car, with its common nose and rear bumpers, changed that dynamic?

"It has. With these cars you don't have the kinds of accidents where guys get turned around because the bumpers on all these cars match up so well. If you get in a situation where a guy checks up in front of you and you run into him by accident and the guy behind you hits you, you're not going to spin each other out. That's made short track racing fun again. You're not worried about having to explain to somebody that whatever contact you had was an accident. And short tracks aren't cookie-cutter. They're all one-of-a-kind and they all have their own personality. Martinsville fits that bill, and it also has a cool trophy that's a one-of-a-kind."

Martinsville is one of just a handful of tracks where teams have experience running the current generation race car, for what we used to call the Car of Tomorrow was run at both Martinsville races last year. Does that allow you to find what you need in your race car a little more easily?

"It is the second year around for this car at some of these tracks, and at Martinsville it will be our third time with this car. Some of these other tracks where you're running with this car for the first time, everybody is doing a little more sorting out as they get a better understanding of the car. But at Martinsville, you better be on your 'A' game because everybody has experience with this car at this track. You're going to have to have it right when you get here. You're not going to be able to just go there and get it right for that one day. The competition is going to be closer at Martinsville than it was at Atlanta and some of these other places we've raced at this year because everybody has run this package here, and everybody has a good idea as to what the right setup is. We all have two races of notes from Martinsville to tell us what we need to do this time around."

There was a time early in your career that you weren't that fond of Martinsville. What changed?

"You're right. I can remember saying that we ought to fill it up with water and have the Bassmasters Classic there, or demolish the whole infield and pave it and make it a mini mall. But since then, Clay Campbell (track president) has done a lot of work at Martinsville and made huge improvements to make it what it is now. It's a fun, racy race track.

"Back in the day, if you couldn't stay on the bottom, you were in big trouble. If you got moved to the outside, you were getting freight-trained. That wasn't fun. But now, you can pass on the outside, you can race on the outside, and sometimes, the groove where you want to be is on the outside depending on how your car is driving.

"Clay took the time and the effort to make a whole new garage setup, where everyone has a really nice garage stall. They're some of the nicest garage stalls on the circuit. To do the things that they've done, the days of turning Martinsville into a mini mall are long gone. Clay is one of the more proactive promoters in the series, and he's tried really hard to make things better."

It's sometimes debated that because of Martinsville's rural location that it doesn't deserve two dates on the Sprint Cup schedule. As a racer and as a promoter -- you own Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio -- what do you think about that?

"Martinsville deserves two dates. All you've got to do is come watch a race at Martinsville to realize that. There are no bad finishes at Martinsville."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Clay Campbell , Fred Lorenzen
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing