Michigan II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Get Your Groove On ATLANTA (Aug. 15, 2006) - Michigan International Speedway has been a favorite among drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series since NASCAR first visited the 2-mile, D-shaped oval in June of 1969. With its...

Get Your Groove On

ATLANTA (Aug. 15, 2006) - Michigan International Speedway has been a favorite among drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series since NASCAR first visited the 2-mile, D-shaped oval in June of 1969.

With its sweeping corners, banked at 18 degrees and connected by a slightly rounded 3,600-ft. frontstretch and a straight 2,242-ft. backstretch, Michigan allows drivers to help themselves by providing multiple racing grooves to suit the handling characteristics of their race car. From the low side of the track's apron to the high side near the track's outer retaining wall, just about any patch of asphalt is fair game.

For Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, Michigan's diverse racing lines have yielded positive results. The two-time and reigning series champion has a win along with five top-threes and nine top-10s in 15 career starts at Michigan. He even has an IROC win on his Michigan resume, having beaten former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte for the prize in 2001.

In the brave new world that is NASCAR in 2006, where parity reigns and even the slightest edge can make a huge difference, the trump card in the pocket of The Home Depot Racing Team is Stewart. Able to drive anything, anywhere, Stewart can use Michigan's multiple racing grooves to put his Home Depot Chevrolet where it performs best.

And as he prepares to make his 271st career Nextel Cup start on Sunday, Stewart is intent on using Michigan's grooves to set his championship groove.

Casual observers seem to say that the racing on D-shaped ovals is boring. But drivers seem to like it because they're able to move around and use multiple grooves. Is that true at Michigan?

"Yes, you can definitely move around at Michigan. The thing about Michigan is that it's been there for so long now that there's no one, specific groove anymore. You can literally race from the white line on the apron all the way to the wall. That's the groove. Depending on how your car is driving, you can move around on the race track and help yourself. That's what makes Michigan such a fun race track for the drivers. The drivers can really help themselves out if they don't have a car that's working right. You can move around on the race track and find a spot that helps your car do what you need it to do."

Where does Michigan rank in terms of all the 1.5- to 2-mile D-shaped ovals that are on the Nextel Cup circuit?

"It's so wide and there are so many lines that you can run - that's what makes Michigan fun for drivers. You have to figure out how to gauge your momentum and know where you want to be on that race track when you enter those corners. Michigan's layout gives the drivers the flexibility to really make a difference in their car's handling."

At what point do you start to move around on the race track to find a better handle for your race car?

"As soon as you feel like you're not where you need to be. If you feel like you're slower than the pace you need to be running, you're going to move up the race track and find a place that helps balance your race car. Really, from the drop of the green flag, you do it from there on out."

What percentages would you put on a comparison between the importance of horsepower and handling at Michigan?

"It's probably about 50/50. You need to have an aerodynamic car, but you've got to have the horsepower to pull it, too. You can't have one and not the other and expect to go to Michigan and win the race."

How big a role does drafting play at Michigan?

"It's big since Michigan is such a momentum track. You can work the draft pretty well, and if there are some guys racing up in front of you, it'll help you catch up to them. It's a place where you really have to watch and pay attention to the draft."

There are only four races before the chase for the championship begins Sept. 17 at New Hampshire. With you being seventh in points, is there any sense of urgency to get a more secure spot in the top-10?

"In all honesty, we just take it one race at a time. That's the only way you can take it, because you can't predict anything that's going to happen or how things are going to work. You always have to just take it one race at a time.

"Our attitude and approach has always been to just go out and try to win the race. And if you win the race, the points take care of themselves. So if we can go out and do that, we don't have to worry about the rest of it.

"As far as we're concerned, it's just a matter of going out and doing what we do every week and trying to get ourselves in a position to win every single week that we go on the race track."

With roughly two-and-a-half years of the revised point system under your belt, what's your impression?

"I think it turned out fine. I liked it the way it was, but with the old system I would've been worried every week about where we stood. But now? I can't even tell how many points out of the lead we are because I don't even know. The good thing about the new point system is that it gives the good teams that have historically been in the top-10 the flexibility to try things, knowing that if you have a bad week it's not going to be that dramatic. But the moral of the story is still the same - if you get into that top-10 you better have your stuff ready to go for that last 10-week stretch and not have any mistakes, because mistakes in that final, 10-race sprint will cost you big."

Do you feel that for drivers in your position, instead of point racing at the end of the year you're point racing now? Because the way the point system is designed for the final 10 races, you have to go out and try to win each and every race to gain as many points as possible. That wasn't always the case in year's past.

"We've got a couple of weeks here where we can try things and have that flexibility. But the good thing is that we're not struggling and having to try new things. We have the ability to do that if we want to because of where we are in the points, but regardless we're in a good spot. Our performance the last couple of weeks has shown that we're finally hitting our marks. For us, it's just a matter of going out and doing our thing now."

You'll be competing in the NASCAR Busch Series race on Saturday prior to the Nextel Cup race on Sunday. How much does running the Busch car help you on Sunday when you climb into your Home Depot Chevrolet?

"I think that running the Busch car gives us a bigger start on Friday because we have a lot more information to work with as we get ready for qualifying. Before we even start Cup practice I'll have been out on the track in the Busch car for two hours, so we'll have a good understanding as to what we need in our Home Depot Chevrolet when we we're out there getting it ready for qualifying. As far as the race goes, running a Busch car doesn't hurt, that's for sure. Michigan is a track where if you find a spot that you like, sometimes it'll make your car handle better. But sometimes it won't. Running the Busch car will give me a good idea as to where those spots are on the race track, and it'll let me know whether it helped or hurt the car."

Joe Gibbs Racing development driver Aric Almirola will be making his fourth career NASCAR Busch Series start at Michigan. For a young driver with very little Busch Series experience, he's run up front in all of his races. What are your thoughts on him and what are his chances at Michigan?

"I'm really impressed with him. His attitude is good. His approach to what he's doing is good. I think he's doing things the right way. He's got a good head on his shoulders and it seems like every week he just keeps getting better and better and better. The fun part for us is that he's kind of sneaking up on everybody. I don't think everybody quite realizes how good he really is yet. To see his Busch races at Dover and Indy and to see how well he did is proof of that. I think Michigan will be a track he'll like. He's been there with the Truck Series once already, so he's got some experience, and with the Busch car I think he'll have a lot of fun."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Aric Almirola
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing