Tony Stewart Title defense springs anew at Richmond. ATLANTA (April 29, 2003) - The spring NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway has served as a catalyst to Home Depot Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart over the past...
Title defense springs anew at Richmond.
ATLANTA (April 29, 2003) - The spring NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway has served as a catalyst to Home Depot Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart over the past two years. In both 2001 and 2002, Stewart got a sluggish start to his season. He entered Richmond ninth in points in 2001, but a win in the May event bumped him up to seventh in points and helped earn his way to a runner-up finish in the season-ending point standings. In 2002, Stewart entered Richmond 10th in points, and his second straight win in the spring race brought him to eighth in points, laying the groundwork for what would be a championship year. In 2003, it's d0x00e9j0x00e0 vu all over again.
Stewart enters Saturday night's Pontiac Excitement 400 11th in points after a strong but short run the previous weekend in California. Stewart led three times for 100 laps - the most of any driver in the Auto Club 500 - but an engine failure relegated him to a 41st place finish.
With Stewart having scored three wins amongst three top-fives and six top-10s at Richmond, NASCAR's visit to the Virginia capital couldn't come at a better time.
Stewart likes Richmond a lot - and for good reason - as the Indiana native has led a total of 562 laps during his eight career Winston Cup starts. That amounts to 17.56 percent of the 3,200 available laps. And when Winston Cup isn't racing at Richmond, Stewart still is, having piloted a NASCAR Busch Series car, a NASCAR Craftsman Truck, a USAC Silver Crown car and a USAC Midget around the .750-mile oval. In fact, Stewart's most recent win at Richmond came last September, when he won the Craftsman Truck Series race in only his second Truck Series start.
If Stewart continues his winning ways at Richmond, he will become the first driver in NASCAR's modern era (1972 to present) to win three straight spring Richmond races. With Stewart's track record, few are betting against him.
Richmond always seems to be the catalyst to your season. Why?
"I just really like that track. It's always been good to us. We got our first Winston Cup win at Richmond, and anytime you win your first race somewhere, that track automatically becomes very special to you. And since then, we've gotten two other wins. Obviously, we enjoy going there and we enjoy racing at night and we always seem to have a car that drives well."
After tough races at Texas, Talladega (Ala.) and Fontana (Calif.), how much of a boost is it for you and the race team to come to Richmond - a race track where you excel?
"It'll help if Richmond produces a good finish and hopefully a win. If it produces another DNF (Did Not Finish), then the race won't have any significance in that respect. But if we can have a good finish - which we've typically had there - it would be great timing considering what's happened to us the last couple of weeks."
As the defending winner, what's the key to winning at Richmond?
"You want to make sure that your car is adjustable. We start the race at the end of the day where it's usually pretty hot, but as night comes the track cools down and it changes quite a bit. That's not something you see at most of the races we go to. It's pretty much isolated to just the night races. When we tested here last year, we actually tried to make the car drive badly so that we could figure out ways to make it drive well again. You've got to have adjustability, because you know for a fact that the track isn't going to stay the same all night long."
If you win again Saturday night, you'll become the only driver in NASCAR's modern era to win three straight spring Winston Cup races at Richmond. Does that enter your mind, our do you view it as just another race?
"I don't really pay attention to the stats too much. For us, we just need to focus on having a good weekend at Richmond. Even if we can't win the race, we need to come out of there with a good top-five to get us heading back in the right direction in the point standings."
You've won at Richmond three times now - is there something about the place that suits you?
"I don't know that there's anything in particular. You have to have a good driving car and you have to be somewhat patient. A lot of times you want to go, but you can't due to traffic. The nice thing about Richmond is that it is a two-groove race track. You're able to go high or low. It seems like the guys who do the best job of not beating their cars up all night are the guys who are normally successful at the end of the night."
At the start of last year's spring race - even with it being held during the day as it was rained-out on Saturday night - your car wasn't very good. But by the end of the race, it was obviously quite good. How did you get the car to your liking by the end of the race?
"I know the kind of feel that I want in the race car during final practice so that's it's really good for the next evening. And Zippy (Greg Zipadelli, crew chief) is always able to get me that feel, while at the same time, making sure that we have enough adjustability built into the car so that we're able to compensate for changing track conditions. We had enough adjustability in the car last year, it just took almost the entire race to get it where it needed to be."
A lot was made of the sealer that was put down at Richmond last year. Do you expect it to be an issue again this year?
"I think part of the problem last year was the amount of sealer they put down, but since then the sealer has had a chance to age. There have been some other races on the track since we were there, and even during the fall race last year the track changed somewhat for the better. You'll see two-wide racing again for sure."
Where would you rank Richmond in terms of good, close racing for the fans to enjoy?
"Just the fact that you can run two-wide there gives not only the drivers, but the fans a good short track race. You don't hear people talking about the aero push. You don't hear people talking about a certain team having more horsepower than anybody else. It just seems to be good short track racing, especially with the fact that you don't have those variables involved. There's no big, super trick to winning there. You just have to have a well-balanced car. The good thing is that the fans get to see a good race there. They get to see us run close. But it's one of those unique sized and shaped tracks to where you run side-by-side a lot of the night, but at the same time, you separate from each other and get a break to where you can catch your breath a little bit, too. To me, it's one of the perfect tracks on our schedule."
Do the track conditions at Richmond change much between the time when you race there in the fall and when you return in the spring?
"Of all the tracks that we go to, Richmond is one where the track changes quite a bit. To me, it's like going back to dirt track days, where you look at the race track and you look at the conditions and you adjust accordingly. The approach you used at the fall race may not be the same way you go about setting up the car for the spring race. But overall, the approach you do use is still geared toward making the car rotate through the center of the corner and going forward when you get on the gas without spinning the tires. Those principles stay the same. But how you drive the track from a driver's standpoint is a little different, and that's what's fun about it. It's still a challenge for the crews, but it's a challenge for the drivers to figure out where they want to be on the race track."
Is Richmond similar to any other tracks that you've raced on in your career?
"It just reminded me of some of the shorter tracks that I've run. It had kind of the same feel that quarter-mile tracks did with some of the other cars that I've run with. It wasn't a big drastic change. It was like Phoenix the first time I went there. I hadn't been to a one-mile oval but once in my life, but when I got onto Phoenix, I adjusted and adapted to it really quickly. It was a place where I became very comfortable right away. I had that same feeling when I went to Richmond for the first time with The Home Depot car. I think every driver has a track that they go to where they get that same feeling. There are just some places that you go to where you adjust, and it really suits your driving style."
Because you've won there, do you have higher expectations going into Richmond, or do you treat it as just another points-paying race?
"I think that with the way our season is going, we have to look at it like it's just another race. But it's going to be hard to not have in the back of our mind that because we've won there three times we should expect to run well again. I'm not sure we'd go in there and expect to win again. I think we've got a shot to win, but to go there and expect it - we don't do that. But we do expect to run well and hopefully contend for the win."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet...
What is your approach going into the Pontiac Excitement 400?
"We'll go there with really high expectations. That race will be all about track position, so the guys in the pits are going to play a big role, just as much as what we're able to do on the race track.
"Over the course of our four years of going there, we've been good enough to win all but one time. With that kind of momentum, we can't help but to expect a lot. But we'll just go there and do the best we can and try to win there.
"That's what we do every week. I don't think there is any one place that we look at as a better opportunity over another. I feel like we can pretty much unload anywhere and win right now. With the level that Tony is performing at, with the intensity level of this team, and with the 180 people that are preparing our stuff and supporting the effort back at home, it gives us a chance to be a contender every week."
More on Stewart's Bid for Three Straight Wins at the Richmond Spring Race...
Stewart has three career wins at Richmond, and has won the spring Winston Cup race the past two seasons. If Stewart wins Saturday night's Pontiac Excitement 400, he'll become the only driver in the modern era (1972 to present) to win three straight spring Winston Cup races at Richmond. Richard Petty won two straight spring races (1972 and 1973), as well as two straight fall races (1972 and 1973). Other noteworthy seasonal winners are Rusty Wallace, who won two straight fall races (1992 and 1993), and Bobby Allison, who also won two straight fall races (1982 and 1983). If you go beyond the modern era, Petty won seven straight Richmond races beginning with the 1970 Capital City 500 and ending with the 1973 Capital City 500. A win by Bobby Allison in the 1974 Capital City 500 ended Petty's streak, but Petty came back to win the next two races at Richmond - the 1974 Capital City 500 and the 1975 Richmond 500. Altogether, Petty has 13 Richmond victories. For Stewart, that means 10 more wins to tie Petty.