Tony Stewart Out With The Old, In With The New ATLANTA (Oct. 28, 2003) - A lot has changed for Tony Stewart since he wheeled a USAC Silver Crown car to a second-place finish in the 1993 Copper World Classic at Phoenix International Raceway,...
Out With The Old, In With The New
ATLANTA (Oct. 28, 2003) - A lot has changed for Tony Stewart since he wheeled a USAC Silver Crown car to a second-place finish in the 1993 Copper World Classic at Phoenix International Raceway, just as a lot has changed at the one-mile oval cut into the foothills of the Estrella Mountains.
The Phoenix that Stewart knew from that first visit to the desert oval is not the same Phoenix he saw while testing his #20 Home Depot Chevrolet Monte Carlo there Oct. 14-15.
The outside wall stretching along turn two and onto the backstretch has been pushed back 12 feet. A tunnel underneath turn four has been installed, with new pavement throughout the corner as a result of the construction. And with the tunnel in place, the bridge that spanned turn four since the track's inception in 1964 was dismantled, allowing fans an unobstructed view of the track's one-mile layout.
And as the race track is enjoying a rebirth of sorts, so too is Stewart's season in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. As far back as 20th in the championship point standings following the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) in May, Stewart has rallied to seventh in points thanks in large part to six top-five finishes in the past six races. Included in that run was a win at Charlotte three weeks ago and a strong second-place finish Monday at Atlanta.
Stewart enters the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix as one of the hottest drivers on the tour. His recent string of success - combined with his history at Phoenix in USAC Silver Crown cars, USAC Midgets, Supermodifieds, Indy cars and now stock cars - makes the reigning Winston Cup champion a favorite to earn his second Winston Cup victory at Phoenix since winning there as a rookie in 1999.
You're running very strong as the season comes to a close. Talk about your expectations coming into Phoenix.
"We've really been on a roll here the last six weeks with top-five finishes, and between that and our test at Phoenix earlier this month, this Home Depot team has a lot of confidence, not just for Phoenix, but for Rockingham (N.C.) and Homestead (Fla.) as well. We're pretty excited about the way we're ending this season, even though it didn't go the way we would've wanted it to during the middle part of the season."
What's been the difference between your performance during the middle part of the season and now?
"We've made some adjustments in our engine program in trying to increase our horsepower. We were successful in doing that, but at the same time, whenever you do that you sacrifice reliability. And our team was no different. We had to sacrifice reliability to get that horsepower. But as the season has gone on we've gained a lot of that reliability back, which has helped us be so consistent these last six races.
"But it's also been that we haven't had the same luck we had last year. Just little things have happened. Little malfunctions like at Charlotte at the 600 where we had a spark plug fail on us. I think that's the first spark plug I've ever had fail since I've been in Winston Cup racing. That's not a very common problem, and it's been a lot of uncommon problems like that that have popped up like gremlins where there's nothing you can do about them. It's just been a very unlucky season for us."
Can you describe the changes to Phoenix from a driver's standpoint?
"The most noticeable change is the wall off of turn two where they moved it back 12 feet. And there used to be a gap between the end of that wall and where the wall to the dogleg along the backstretch started. That's all been eliminated. The wall that they moved back 12 feet now continues all the way around the backstretch. They've also put a tunnel in right off of turn four, and in doing that, they removed the Goodyear pedestrian bridge that was a pretty historic landmark at PIR. Those were the only changes that we noticed during our test, but they were some pretty big changes to not notice."
Will the changes affect the racing any?
"It'll be hard to say. Coming off turn two and onto the dogleg was always a pretty good passing opportunity because that end of the track was tighter. It was difficult to get through. With the wall being moved out 12 feet we can run faster through that section of the track, and I'm not sure that it'll lend to as many passing opportunities as it has in the past. I don't know if it'll help passing opportunities because turn two is opened up now, or if it'll hurt it because getting through that corner is a little less difficult. But either way, I still think we're going to put on a great race.
"The overall changes, especially the part where they had to deal with the surface of the race track, I think they did an excellent job. Laying a tunnel in the race track and then having to patch that area back over - that's the smoothest patch job I've ever driven across."
How long have you been racing at Phoenix?
"I started racing there in '93 when I ran a Silver Crown car. And since then, I've run USAC Midgets, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, and of course, Winston Cup in The Home Depot car. So, I've logged a bunch of laps there. I even made my 100th Winston Cup start there two years ago. To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix, I guess you could say it's the place where my career came full-circle."
Did all those laps that you made over the years at Phoenix help prepare you for when you first went there in a Winston Cup car?
"I think so. With every different division of car that I've run there, I've ended up running a different line. With that, I've learned a lot about that race track and where the sweet spots are on that race track. I was used to the place when it came time to run there in Winston Cup. I knew a lot about that race track and the different places that can make you go fast or slow. It gave me an opportunity to adapt a lot more to the car than to the race track."
When you talk about "sweet spots," what do you mean?
"You learn about all the bumps and where all the bumps are on the race track. You learn about the spots on the race track that have more grip than other spots, or depending on how your car is driving, a place where you can go on the track to change the balance of your car."
Phoenix is a flat track, but is it like the other flat tracks on the circuit, or is it an entity all its own?
"Everybody calls it a flat track, but to me one end is flat and one end has banking to it. It's a unique place because the radius of the corners are different on each end, the banking of the corners are different on each end, and then you have the dogleg on the backstretch."
Is racing in the Southwest like a family reunion of sorts, because there are so many people in that area who you've met through your racing career?
"With the racing I've done with USAC out West, I've developed a lot of friendships and relationships with people. Running Winston Cup, we don't have the opportunity to go out to that area but a couple of times a year. The small amount of time that we get to spend out in Phoenix for the Cup race is very valuable to me and all my friends out there. And with all of those friends and fans in that area, there's a fair amount of pride that I take in racing at Phoenix. So for me, it's a place that's very important for The Home Depot Chevrolet to run well. That's one of the reasons we tested out there."