Pocono: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Pickin' Up at Pocono ATLANTA (June 3, 2003) - In leading twice for 67 laps and coming home with a solid fourth-place finish in last Sunday's NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Tony Stewart and ...

TONY STEWART Pickin' Up at Pocono

ATLANTA (June 3, 2003) - In leading twice for 67 laps and coming home with a solid fourth-place finish in last Sunday's NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team righted themselves after three straight finishes of 40th or worse. It was a possible precursor to the month of June, which includes a stretch of races where Stewart has shown remarkable strength.

Four of Stewart's 15 career Winston Cup victories have come during the month of June. Two wins have been had at Dover, one at Michigan, and one at the road course in Sonoma, Calif. The lone track missing from that list of June race venues is Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.J The 2.5-mile triangle nestled in the Pocono Mountains is beyond unique, with three distinct corners and a main straightaway that is almost a mile in length. It can confound crew chiefs on chassis setup, bring motor men to their knees, and humble drivers who find that a great handling car in turn one can make for an evil handling car in turns two or three. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then Pocono is its race track equivalent.

Despite the difficult circumstances, the #20 Home Depot Racing Team has proved to be a constant presence at the front of the field in almost every Pocono race. In eight career starts, Stewart has only one finish outside of the top-10. His two top-fives and seven top-10s are augmented by the pole he scored in July of 2000.

But Stewart and Company want more. Seventh-place finishes in the past three races at Pocono are nice, but wins are better, which is why the #20 team tested there May 28-29.J

Because no corner at Pocono is alike, do you have to give up handling in one corner to make yourself better in another corner?

"With Pocono's three corners, you're normally able to get two out of three, and the third one you struggle with a little bit. But we're starting to get to where we're right in all three corners now. With Pocono being as big as it is, you just have to really work hard and know how much momentum plays a role on that race track. 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 guys who's going to win the race."

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.JYou 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, but you've got the challenge of having to downshift in the middle of 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."

Coming down that front straightaway, the racing can get pretty wide.JWhen 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."

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."

Is the month of June perhaps the best month on the schedule, in that you run four very distinctly different race tracks?

"I like it because it's something different. It's not a mile-and-a-half (oval), mile-and-a-half, mile-and-a-half. We don't even run a mile-and-a-half this month. We're racing a different discipline each week."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet...

You tested at Pocono May 28-29. With only five test dates available, why did you choose Pocono?

"We've always run well at Pocono, but we've always been between about a fourth or seventh-place car there. We've never really been any better than that. I think we finished third one time. We've run okay, but we've never gone there and led a lot of laps. Tony is good enough to get around that place, and our cars are good enough to win. We're excited to go back with the motor package our motor room has come up with. With our new Home Depot Monte Carlo, it gave us a chance to get some good flat-track experience with that car because we ran a lot of laps. So, that's why we tested.

"There's no place where we don't run very well. There are some tracks where we haven't finished well, but I feel like we run well pretty much everywhere we go. So it's hard to pick which tracks you're going to test. With Pocono, it's a big, flat race track. We used the same tire we'll run at Indy. We just wanted to get some laps at a big place like that, and hopefully when we come back for the race, we'll challenge for a win instead of being in that fourth to 10th place spot we've been in."

When NASCAR curbed team testing at Winston Cup venues from seven test dates to five, how did that affect your planning of where to test and when?

"You look at where you've struggled or where you're good, and determine what you need to work on or what you need to stay on top. We've always run well at Loudon (N.H.), but we're going to test up there at the end of the month. They've changed the race track a little bit, and we haven't been as good there as we were earlier in our career. A lot of that is because the sport has changed, the tires have changed, and it's made everything a lot closer. Everybody's a lot more equal. And with our test at Loudon, we'll learn things that we can take to Richmond (Va.) and Phoenix. So with picking test dates, you also look at where you can use that information at other race tracks."

Because no corner at Pocono is alike, do you have to give up handling in one corner to make yourself better in another corner?

"That's actually been our problem in the past. We've been good in some places and not good in others. When we tested, we finally got our Home Depot Chevrolet to do the same thing in all three corners. It drove well and the balance was good in all three corners. We went a completely different way on the setup - something that you normally wouldn't get a chance to try during the race weekend, just because you only get two 45-minute practice sessions to work on race setup.J "At Pocono, it's basically a minute a lap. You've also got to wait on pit road for other guys, come into the garage area and make some changes - you can only run 15-20 laps during practice because everything there takes so long. So we took advantage of the time we had during the test and went in a few different directions. It seemed like it worked. We'll see how well when we go back. We were really good and we were really fast, but there weren't any really good cars we had to race with. It was mostly guys who hadn't been there before. They looked like they got better in the time that they were there. But the people we've got to race for the win - we don't know how good they are, simply because they weren't there."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart