Richmond II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART enters Richmond a winner, ready to leave Richmond a winner ATLANTA (Sept. 2, 2003) - Tony Stewart started his month of September in the best way possible - by winning. The driver of the ...

TONY STEWART enters Richmond a winner, ready to leave Richmond a winner

ATLANTA (Sept. 2, 2003) - Tony Stewart started his month of September in the best way possible - by winning. The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series spent his Labor Day in a Home Depot Chevrolet of a different color, driving a jet black Monte Carlo to a dominating performance in the ARCA race at the DuQuoin (Ill.) State Fairgrounds. Stewart won the pole by over a half-second at the one-mile dirt oval (34.927 seconds with an average speed of 103.927 mph) before leading 85 of the 103 laps available to score his first career ARCA victory.

The reigning Winston Cup champion gets two days to enjoy his triumph before defending his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series win from a year ago at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. In just his second career Truck Series start and first since racing at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1996, Stewart grabbed the lead from Kevin Harvick 34 laps from the finish and pulled away to a .259-second victory in last year's race. Stewart makes his return to the Truck Series for Thursday night's Virginia Is For Lover's 200 driving for the same man who he shared victory lane with last year - Andy Petree. Joining Stewart and Petree for this year's race is the country band Diamond Rio. The group - who Stewart introduced at the Academy of Country Music Awards at Las Vegas in May - will be featured on the #33 truck while also in attendance for the race, where they're scheduled to sing the national anthem before joining Stewart on pit road.

The extra track time on Thursday night should benefit Stewart on Saturday night, when he takes the wheel of his regular mount - the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing. Three of Stewart's 16 Winston Cup wins have come at Richmond, including his maiden trip to victory lane as a rookie in the 1999 fall race. Stewart's rapid ascension to super-stardom began that night, when he led 333 of the 400 laps available (83.2 percent). Five years later Stewart looks for another dominating performance - the proper bookend to a week that began in dominating fashion.

On your third attempt you were finally able to win the ARCA race on the one-mile dirt oval at the DuQuoin (Ill.) State Fairgrounds. Talk about that.

"It was a good day. We showed up there with a crew that I hadn't necessarily worked with in the past, and we made this trip with it being my first time as the car owner. So I had a lot of new responsibilities outside of just driving the race car. I had to worry about rental cars, hotels and everything else that goes along with running a race. But it was a lot of fun. A lot of my really close friends down in Charlotte (N.C.) that work on other Winston Cup teams went with me - guys from both the 40 and 41 car as well as a couple of our own guys from Joe Gibbs Racing. It was a good group of guys to work with.

"We qualified on the pole by over a half second again. We had good pit strategy that kept us in line with the rest of the leaders. The track conditions were a little tougher than normal, and that made it harder to pass, but we were still able to get back into the lead in a pretty quick manner once we made our pit stop. From then on it was a matter of running our own race at our own pace."

What made you want to win that race so badly?

"We were the fastest car there the last two years, but Frank Kimmel always beat us. The first year that I ran there I actually drove for Frank in a second car. I ran him down but couldn't get by him at the end. And last year I drove for Andy Petree and again had the quickest car there, but still came up one spot shy. The car that I drove last year was the same car that I drove this year. We purchased it from a gentleman who had bought the car from Andy, and then from there, got the right people together to go racing. I didn't want to run second again. I knew we were quick enough to win that race. It was just a matter of being able to go out and do it."

Was this win more satisfying in that you did it with your own equipment and with a team that you assembled?

"Yes, it was fun. It was great having Home Depot on board and the fact that it was my car. Knowing that it was something that Jimmy (Elledge) and I had put together, and then to go out there and win, made the whole day very satisfying."

What's it like driving a stock car on dirt?

"Oh, it's fun. You just can't sling 'em around like you do a dirt late model. But they are very, very fun on dirt. I wish we could get some Winston Cup races on dirt."

Before you race your #20 Home Depot Chevrolet Saturday night, you'll be defending your win in the Craftsman Truck Series race Thursday night. You'll be driving for Andy Petree again in a Chevrolet truck that features your favorite country band - Diamond Rio. Talk about that.

"I'm excited about it. I've been good friends with Diamond Rio for a long time now, and they follow very closely what I do in Winston Cup. I've always wanted to do something with them in racing, and running the truck on Thursday with Andy Petree was a great opportunity to do that. The guys in the band are very excited. It's going to be a lot of fun because we're not worried about point standings or anything like that. I'm running this race for the fun of it. I just want to go out and have a good time and not worry about points for a night. I've always enjoyed racing at Richmond, so I'm just looking forward to getting another race - and hopefully another win - under my belt there."

Richmond is the second race track on the circuit after Indianapolis to install the SAFER barrier system. What are your thoughts about that?

"I'm very happy with that, to be honest. It seems like everybody has done their homework on the SAFER walls and they've been patient about not over-reacting and throwing something up at the last minute. I'm really happy that Richmond made the decision to put the walls up. Hopefully, it'll take the impacts that we do have there and lessen them. You're not going to prevent accidents from happening, but hopefully the severity of the impacts will be considerably less."

Will you notice the SAFER walls when you're making laps on the race track?

"We're not conscious that the walls are there when we're running, but I guarantee that if you start spinning and you're heading toward that wall, you're going to think about it a little bit. As far as what we're doing on the track, we're concentrating on what we're doing behind the steering wheel. We're not really thinking about the wall."

Regardless of the type of race track, passing seems to come at a premium these days. Why is that the case?

"I think what it basically boils down to is that in the past, tires used to give up and racing used to be like a chess match. If you were on fresh tires and you figured that the segment of the race you were in was going to go about 80 laps, you typically wouldn't run 100 percent on that set of tires for the first 15-20 laps. You knew you could run harder, but you wouldn't because you had to take care of your tires so that you had something left for the end of your run. Guys were a little more patient around each other because it was kind of like a chess match - you had to figure out who was going to make their move and also when you were going to make your move. Goodyear has built such a good, reliable tire that nowadays you have to go 100 percent from the drop of the green flag to the end of your segment. There's no more chess match, so to speak. There's just not as much give and take. It used to be that if a guy was a little quicker than you at the beginning of a run, you'd let him go, knowing that there would be the possibility that he was running too hard on his tires and that he would fade in 30 or 40 laps and you'd catch him and go back by him. But the tires are so good these days you know that they just aren't going to give up as much. So if you can hold a guy up and not give that position away - that's the way you have to do it these days."

Three Winston Cup wins and one Truck Series win. Your track record at Richmond is pretty impressive. Is there any particular reason why?

"I'm not sure I have any secrets or anything. It's a track that I like. I run a line around there that's kind of unique compared to some of the other drivers. It's just a fun place, especially in the fall after some of the sealer wears off. It's typically a very good, two-groove race track, and that makes it a little easier to pass, even in today's racing environment. Being able to run different lines around the track and finding different levels of grip is something that's always made racing at Richmond fun. Even though it's still a short track, you still have the ability to somewhat get away from each other. You're able to put a little distance between yourself and the next guy when you're out on the race track."

While Matt Kenseth's lead in the championship point standings is pretty impressive, there's only 191 points that separates you from the top-five in points. You've never finished lower than sixth in points. Is a top-five points finish still in the cards for you and this race team?

"We're obviously working hard to get the best points finish we can for this Home Depot team. I feel like our on-track performance is better than it's ever been, perhaps in my whole career in Winston Cup. It's just that our finishes haven't been where we've wanted them to be. But I give all of the credit to the crew for getting us that performance. Our engine department has been making huge gains, and I've told our engine department, my crew chief and everyone on our team that I feel like everywhere we go, every week that we're a contender to win. It's just a matter of putting all of the pieces together to where we not only go out there and secure top-fives week-in and week-out, but start getting those wins a little more consistently too."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Frank Kimmel , Andy Petree
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing