TONY STEWART Poised for Pocono ATLANTA (June 5, 2007) -- Rarely do you hear drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series say, "Man, I can't wait to get to Pocono." That's because Pocono (Pa.) Raceway is a race track designed by committee -- part...
Poised for Pocono
ATLANTA (June 5, 2007) -- Rarely do you hear drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series say, "Man, I can't wait to get to Pocono."
That's because Pocono (Pa.) Raceway is a race track designed by committee -- part drag strip, part high-banked oval, part flat track. And if you're good in one section of the race track, you're typically struggling in another.
The best way to describe Pocono's 2.5-mile layout is that of a triangle, where none of its three corners are alike. It begins with an enormously long front straightaway that dumps into a tight, semi-banked corner. Upon leaving turn one and shooting down another long straightaway, drivers are subjected to the tunnel turn -- a bumpy and very narrow half-corner. If unscathed, drivers exit the tunnel turn and speed down a third straightaway, only to negotiate another tight corner. Turn three is the final turn of the track, and with little banking, drivers must feather the throttle to get the balance and grip they need to race down that long front straightaway all over again.
The one driver who relishes the opportunity Pocono presents is Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing. The two-time Nextel Cup champion won at Pocono in June 2003, and in 16 career Nextel Cup starts at the quirky track, he has four top-fives and 11 top-10s -- five of which have been seventh-place results (July 2006, July 2005, June 2002, July 2002 and June 2001).
Stewart comes into Sunday's Pocono 500 riding Chassis No. 120. In 11 career starts dating back to last year's Labor Day weekend race at California, Chassis No. 120 has led 633 laps and has an average finish of eighth. It's also the car that delivered all three of Stewart's wins during last year's final, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup -- Kansas, Atlanta and Texas.
With a trusted car and a solid track history at Pocono, Stewart is poised for a return to victory lane.
The car you're bringing to Pocono is Chassis No. 120. In 11 career starts, Chassis No. 120 has led 633 laps and has an average finish of eighth, and it's also the car that delivered all three of your wins during last year's final, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup. Do you have a particular affinity for the car?
"From where I sit, all of my cars at Joe Gibbs Racing look the same. I think that's a testament to the team's preparation. I mean, this car is obviously a good one, but it's one of many in our shop. That being said, it's definitely proven itself as a pretty strong piece. We've used it on a lot of the high downforce tracks on the circuit like Atlanta, Texas and Charlotte. And since you need a little bit of everything at Pocono, it should work well there too."
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. It's a little different now because we don't go through transmission and gear changes like we have in the past where we tried different combinations to find more speed. With the gears NASCAR says you can run, it's made it a totally different style of racing compared to what we've had in year's past at Pocono. It's evened things out for everyone."
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 Chevrolet 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."
What's the most treacherous part of Pocono's layout?
"Probably the tunnel turn. Everybody realizes how fast they're going into (turn) one. And they know that if they wreck they're going to wreck hard. The tunnel turn is a little sneaky. It's a tight fit through there, and you don't really know how fast you're going until something bad happens."
Coming down that front straightaway, the racing can get pretty wide. When and where do you have to get back in line to make it into that first corner?
"It just kind of funnels itself back into line before we get into (turn) one. Everybody tries to get back on the high side to make their entry into the corner, but sometimes it does get a little tight in there. But most times, you just do what you have to do to get The Home Depot Chevrolet back in line."
If you're down on horsepower at Pocono, are you pretty much out of contention?
"Yeah. If you're down on power at Pocono, you're a mid-pack car at best. You need power to go down that front straightaway, and if you don't have it, you're done."
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."
Well before you came to Pocono as a rookie in 1999, you raced at Pocono in a go-kart as a youth. What was that like?
"Years and years and years ago, 1986 I think, I ran the WKA (World Karting Association) Enduro Series. When we ran Pocono, we actually ran the majority of the big track backward. You went out on the front straightaway backward and then you turned into the road course in the infield and came back out on the speedway past the part where you'd run with the Nextel Cup car, but you'd turn back on the track and turn to the right. You'd go around the tunnel turn and then come back around. It was pretty neat, pretty different. You really didn't get a perspective of what it was like in a stock car, by any means, because you were going in the wrong direction in a go-kart that only went 105 mph. It was definitely a different perspective than what I experience there now."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing:
The car you're brining to Pocono is Chassis No. 120. In 11 career starts, Chassis No. 120 has led 633 laps and has an average finish of eighth, and it's also the car that delivered all three of your wins during last year's final, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup. How does one car perform so well?
"I don't want to sound like an idiot, but we really don't know why, because we haven't been able to build another one like it. It's just been a good car. Tony is comfortable in it, and the body is good on it. The chassis has a lot of miles on it, but it's still good, so we'll keep putting miles on it until it isn't any good. We've got to get it through the end of the year with however many races we have left at intermediate tracks.
"When it comes to Pocono, we're looking forward to going there. It's one of those places where we either run well or have a miserable weekend, so we plan on going in there with our eyes set on a 'run good' weekend and have some fun."
How important is it to have a race car that generates a lot of downforce at Pocono?
"It's as fast as anyplace else, but there's not the banking to hold the cars (down on the track). Chassis No. 120 is a good sideforce car, especially if it's hot and nasty like it can get there. I think it's our best car to take there. I don't know if it's any better than anybody else's out there, but as far the 20 car goes, it's our best piece and we're going to keep running it."