Pocono II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Like Beijing, Only Different ATLANTA (July 30, 2008) -- Just as Olympians are interested in the air quality in Beijing, site of the 2008 Summer Olympics, drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are interested in the air quality...

Like Beijing, Only Different

ATLANTA (July 30, 2008) -- Just as Olympians are interested in the air quality in Beijing, site of the 2008 Summer Olympics, drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are interested in the air quality in Long Pond, Pa., site of Sunday's Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway.

And just like those throwing the javelin or running the marathon in search of Olympic gold in Beijing, drivers throwing their 3,400-pound race cars around the 2.5-mile oval for a marathon-like four hours want to compete in clean air.

Smog isn't a worry at scenic Pocono, but when a driver is caught in the wake of another car's turbulent or "dirty air" at around 200 mph, it makes for an ill-handling race car.

That won't put a driver anywhere near the podium, never mind see the gold emblazoned on the winner's trophy in Pocono's victory lane. As a result, qualifying is of paramount importance, because if one starts up front, one has a better chance of staying up front. And in a field of 43 cars, that's important.

For Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, he'd like to put down a qualifying lap at Pocono similar to the one he laid down in July 2000. He won the pole for that race, which was the third of his career, and has since picked up seven more, but none since setting fast time at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in October 2005 -- a span of 97 races.

Career pole No. 11 could come at no better place than Pocono, because even though a pole pays no points and zero money, it could pave the way for a big point tally and a hefty payday with a win in Sunday's Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500.

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

When you tested at Pocono in late May and again when you raced there in June, it appeared that racing in clean air was of paramount importance. Why?

"It just seems like these cars are more aero-dependent than what we've had in the past. Pocono is just one of those places that's not high-banked, so it doesn't have a lot of different grooves. Anytime you have one groove in one particular corner, it just makes it where you're stuck following guys. And anytime you're following, you can't move around on the race track, and that makes it hard to pass. With the new car and everybody still trying to figure out what we have to do to make these things great, that's what's going to make it worse than normal. We just can't get around each other."

Since being in clean air will be so important, have you put a higher emphasis on qualifying at Pocono?

"We're going to take the opportunity that Friday's practice gives us to try to get track position at the beginning of the race with a good qualifying run. Qualifying is more important now than ever."

As a driver, is there anything you do differently when you make a mock qualifying run compared to when you make a race run?

"The car just goes faster. You set it up to go fast for one lap, not 40 laps. You can use all the good out of it in one lap versus trying to spread it out over 40 laps."

Has the current-generation race car altered the line you run around Pocono?

"They repaved one strip of the asphalt in (turns) three and four and that's where everybody runs. You might see guys pull slide jobs off the corner, but that's going to be quite a bit different because everybody's going to be hunting for one lane that's two-thirds of the way up the race track. But that's where everybody ended up during the test and when we raced there back in June. Anytime you repave a spot on the race track, it becomes the fast spot."

Explain a lap around Pocono.

"Turn one is probably the easiest of the three -- you drive it in kind of deep and then try to float the car through the corner. You go down the backstretch and into the tunnel turn and it's basically one lane. It's flat and very line-sensitive. You've got to make sure you're right on your marks every lap when you go through there. Then you've got a short chute into turn three. It's a big, long corner and it too is very line-sensitive. With it being line-sensitive and the fact that we've got a straightaway that's three-quarters of a mile long after that, it's very important that you get through the last corner well. You need to come off the corner quickly so that you're not bogged down when you start down that long straightaway. Each corner has its challenges, and each one tends to present a different set of circumstances with each lap you make."

From a driver's standpoint, what's your biggest challenge at Pocono?

"All three corners are different -- that's the most challenging part. It seems like you can always get your car good in two of the three corners, but the guys who are contending for the win are the guys who can get their car good for all three corners. That's a very hard thing to do -- get your car good through all three sections of the race track."

Since Pocono has three distinct corners, where do you start with your race setup?

"We always go out and figure where I feel like I'm struggling the most, because that's where I feel like I'm going to make up the most time. It seems like if we can get our car to go through the tunnel turn well, then we're normally able to get The Home Depot Toyota to go through the rest of the race track well. The tunnel turn seems to be our toughest turn on the race track. Getting through turn two and the last corner of the race track that's flat, long and sweeping -- those seem to be the toughest two corners to get through. And if you're a little bit off, you're a bunch off. If there's a guy who can get all three of those corners right, then that's the guy who's going to win the race."

Greg Zipadelli, crew chief of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:

Since being in clean air is so important at Pocono, do you put a higher emphasis on qualifying?

"Yeah, just like we did back in June, we're going to show up in qualifying trim as long as the weather looks good. If the weather looks even questionable we'll make at least one race run in that first practice on Friday, because when rain sets in there, it can be there for a couple of days. We've seen that before. Right now, we're planning on going there in qualifying trim and making four or five qualifying runs to see where we're at."

How different is a qualifying setup from a race setup?

"You put more nose weight in, you go up on your air pressure, you have a lot more tape on the nose, and when you do that you get your aero balance shifted toward the front. You have to do some things with shocks and springs and nose weight to compensate for that aero balance. When you go to Loudon (N.H.) and places of that nature, they're not huge differences. But when you get to a track like Pocono, it's a big difference because of the amount of speed you're carrying down into the corners."

What is making this current-generation car so aero-dependant at Pocono?

"I think it's just the characteristic of the race track. There's no banking. In turns one and two there is some banking and you see people running two lanes -- some high, some down on the bottom and you see them pass off of turn two. The tunnel turn is fast through the center of the corner and there's not a lot of banking. Same thing with turn three -- there's nothing to hold the cars down on the track. And the track is fast. It's a real fast place. You don't slow down a lot."

How important was it to finally test at Pocono?

"It was important to test because of the Car of Tomorrow's bump stops and things of that nature. It's a completely different car with different springs and shocks and bump rubbers and with the way that race track is with the bumps, it's a lot different than Indy. At Indy, it's one of the hardest places we go to make a car handle, but there's no huge bumps that upset the car. Pocono, my gosh, that place is so cool because all three corners are different. The track surface is different in one than it is in two than it is in three. It's a very challenging place."

Because of that challenge, do you enjoy Pocono? Some people curse the place, but you seem to look forward to it to see if you can beat it. Is that accurate?

"Yeah, I think anytime you go to a place that's different -- the driver has to be on, the car has to be on and the pit stops have to be on because track position is so important. When you do well there, it makes you feel good about your efforts."

Are there things that you learned from the June race at Pocono that you can apply to your return visit?

"It gives us a starting point, but that's about it. That place gives up so much grip after two-and-a-half months of the sun beating down on that race track. Your car won't turn as good and it won't go forward. So, I think the second race there is more difficult than the first one. But you never know, we might get one of those crazy cool overcast weekends that'll change that too. That's what's so cool about that place, you don't know what to expect for weather."

Pocono has been mentioned as a track that could be purchased and/or lose its Sprint Cup races. What do you think of that?

"I'm not a big fan of getting rid of race tracks. I do think race tracks need to be proactive in making improvements, be it with SAFER Barriers, garages that are safe to get in and out of, pit roads that are safer to get on and off or whatever they can do to make improvements. You look at the smallest track we go to in Martinsville (Va.) and see what they've done over the last few years of just doing what they could to make it a better place to race. Every track needs to do whatever they can to make themselves better and safer, with safety being the biggest thing.

"I like going to Pocono. I grew up in that area. I worked on Modifieds and raced there 20-25 years ago. So to me, going to Pocono is kind of like going to Loudon. They're a couple of the coolest race tracks we go to. They have their own personality and their own characteristics. Every corner is different at Pocono, and that's what makes it challenging. You've got to have a driver that's up to the challenge, a crew that's willing to be open-minded and think about things a little differently than you do at other places, and you need good pit stops. To me, Pocono is a fun race track. It's kind of like a road course. I like those kinds of challenges more than those cookie-cutter mile-and-a-halves that we seem to race everywhere."

Talk about your time working on Modifieds and racing at Pocono.

"There was a three-quarter mile oval inside the track. For us at that time, going there and going to Martinsville -- those were really big and prestigious races for the Modified Tour. It was fun. I had the opportunity to win there with Brett Bodine in 1985. At Pocono and Oswego (N.Y.) you used to get beer for leading laps, and we got a lot of beer. You'd get a case of beer for leading laps, and those were big races, so you could leave there with 40, 50 or 100 cases of beer to put on your trailer. At that time, we didn't have any money. That was absolutely huge. It wasn't the beer we used to drink, but we could take it to a place and we'd give them two cases and they'd give us back what we actually drank. It's little things like that you remember from back in the day. It was cool, and every time you go back to places like that, it's special. It's where I came from. To be there that long ago and to be back there racing again in the Sprint Cup Series and having been able to win there in Modifieds and again in Sprint Cup is pretty cool."

-credit: jgr

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Brett Bodine , Tony Stewart