Michigan: Tony Stewart preview

Mojo moves to Michigan ATLANTA (June 10, 2003) - In just two races, Tony Stewart has risen seven positions in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings to 13th. A strong fourth-place run at Dover (Del.) two weeks ago ...

Mojo moves to Michigan

ATLANTA (June 10, 2003) - In just two races, Tony Stewart has risen seven positions in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship point standings to 13th. A strong fourth-place run at Dover (Del.) two weeks ago coupled with a win last Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) seem to indicate that Stewart's traditional June push is well underway.

The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet has logged four of his 16 career wins during the month of June, and he comes into Sunday's Sirius Satellite Radio 400 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn having led a total of 172 laps in the past three Winston Cup races - nearly 20 percent of the 876 laps available.

Stewart is a former Michigan race winner, having won a Winston Cup race at the spacious two-mile oval in June of 2000 as well as an IROC race in August of 2001. And at Michigan's sister track in Fontana, Calif., Stewart was the class of the field earlier this season, leading three times for 100 laps before engine trouble ended his day on lap 128.

But thanks to the tireless efforts of the Joe Gibbs Racing employees who work in the engine department, reliability has been restored, while more horsepower has been found. Confirmation of their efforts came at Pocono, the 2.5-mile track notorious for taxing an engine builder's will. Not only did Stewart win, but he had plenty of power in reserve to make a celebratory burnout so long that 12-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force would've been proud.

With momentum on their side and bad luck in their rear-view mirror, Stewart and Company enter Michigan's Irish Hills with their sights set on another Winston Cup victory.

How important was your win last Sunday at Pocono after suffering through countless setbacks between Texas and Charlotte (N.C.)?

"It had been a long time coming. We've been running well. We've had better cars than we've ever had, better engines, and the best bodies we've ever had on our race cars. It was just a matter of everything falling into place, finally. When you go out and lead the laps that we led at Charlotte, run as hard as we did at Dover last week, and look back at how we ran in The Winston and at California - you look at all those places where we were doing our job, but we just didn't have the luck on our side. We knew in our hearts and minds that it was just a matter of time before it finally turned back around in our favor."

Even though your run at California was cut short, you led three times for 100 laps before the engine expired on lap 128. Michigan is a track that's very similar to California, and you're bringing back the same chassis that you raced at California. How much confidence has California given you coming into Michigan?

"A lot. Our aero program has come a long way since the beginning of the year, and I feel like we've got cars that are good and competitive on the two-mile tracks and the mile-and-a-half tracks. Our day at California might've been a short one, but it showed what we're capable of. We've learned a lot since then, in terms of reliability, and found some more horsepower along the way. I call California Michigan West for good reason. They're both pretty similar. So, I think we're fully capable of running just as strongly at Michigan as we did at California, but this time, all day long."

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."

Track position and pit strategy seem to be the two biggest variables at Michigan. When and how do you make the decision to sacrifice tires for track position, or depending on the circumstances, track position for tires?

"I think it just depends on how your car is working. If your car is driving well, one that keeps you up toward the front all day because it's fast, then just two tires can keep you pretty quick. In that situation, you could make a big gain at the end by just taking on two tires and maintaining your track position. Even some guys who are behind and don't have their car the way they want, by taking on two tires, the track position they gain helps out more than four tires would. But when you get right down to it, I think Michigan is a track where if your car's good, then it doesn't matter whether you take two tires or four."

Michigan is a track where a driver can search for different grooves, as opposed to Indianapolis or New Hampshire, where there is really only one true groove. As a driver, do you appreciate that more?

"It's nice knowing that as a driver you can help yourself out and you're not relying so much on the car. Regardless of what everyone else is doing, you can find a way to help yourself out. It makes you feel good knowing that because the place is so wide, you can move around, and basically, earn your money that day."

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."

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."

MARK CRONQUIST, head engine builder for Joe Gibbs Racing:

You've said that when you receive the engine back from the car that NASCAR confiscated at Texas that it will be out of date. How quickly has technology advanced for an engine that was deemed fit for racing in March be considered antiquated a little over two months later?

"We had some problems since Texas that we had to investigate. At both Texas and California we had engine problems, so we had to go back and find out what the problem was and fix it. Another thing is that we're always trying to find more power, and we've just recently put some new pieces into the system that seem to be working okay. So that has changed the motor as well, making the entire motor that we had at Texas pretty much obsolete."

Is the power that was underneath the hood of the #20 car at California going to be available again at Michigan?

"From Texas to California, we probably picked up five or six horsepower. And since then, we've probably picked up between 10 and 15 more horsepower. Fontana had a little bit of what we learned, then Charlotte had a little bit more, and when we head to Michigan we'll actually have a little bit more. And in the next month we plan on gaining even more (horsepower)."

How do you balance finding more horsepower without sacrificing reliability?

"Whenever you make more power, more things break. Hopefully, you just do your homework and test all your pieces properly. We do as much durability testing at the shop as possible. But when it's all said and done, you've got to put your pieces in the car and go. There's nothing like the car at the race track. It's real world. The water temperature can go up. The oil temperature can go up. The driver can miss a shift. Everything we do at the shop is controlled. We can tune the engine exactly the way we want to. But at the track, you can only control so much. There are just so many variables. And when it comes to tuning (at the track), you're pretty much just looking at spark plugs. You can't get as in-depth as you can at the shop. Basically, you just have more of a chance of breaking something at the race track than you do at the shop, even though we'll run more miles on an engine at the shop than we'll ever run at the track."

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , John Force
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing