Tony Stewart Success in Sedalia Leads to Richmond ATLANTA (May 10, 2004) - Any off-weekend built into the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule is welcomed by drivers as a reprieve from the demands of racing against 42 other drivers in a ...
Success in Sedalia Leads to Richmond
ATLANTA (May 10, 2004) - Any off-weekend built into the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule is welcomed by drivers as a reprieve from the demands of racing against 42 other drivers in a season that lasts from mid-February to late November. For Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, the Mother's Day off-weekend offered a respite from the cacophony of opinions regarding his performance at the tour's most recent stops - Talladega (Ala.) and Fontana (Calif.).
Away from the asphalt tracks of NASCAR, Stewart returned to his dirt track roots, climbing into a 360 winged sprint car at Sedalia (Mo.) State Fair Speedway last Friday, and again on Saturday at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway. He won the feature at Sedalia for his third victory in four starts in Sedalia's 360 division, while in his first 360 race at Knoxville he finished a respectable sixth.
It was grassroots racing, Stewart's ultimate passion. And it came just a week before the Nextel Cup Series heads to one of its most acclaimed grassroots tracks - Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. There, Stewart is a five-time winner - three in the Nextel Cup ranks and twice in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
Stewart's first win at Richmond was the first of his Nextel Cup career, restarting a trend of rookies winning races, as Stewart's victory in the 1999 fall race was the first by a rookie since the late Davey Allison won at Talladega in May of 1987. Stewart went on to win back-to-back spring races at Richmond in 2001 and 2002. And he only added to his trophy count when he won back-to-back Truck races in 2002 and 2003. The only year where Stewart failed to post a win at Richmond was in 2000, but it was far from a disappointment, as he scored top-10 results in his two Nextel Cup visits.
But the Richmond of old where those five wins came from has undergone a bit of a facelift for Saturday night's Chevy American Revolution 400. The .750-mile oval has been completely repaved, leading Stewart and a host of other drivers to test at the facility May 5.
How is the new pavement at Richmond?
"It's really smooth, glass-smooth actually. I'm not sure I could find a bump if someone paid me to find a bump out there. It's really nice, but the downside to fresh asphalt is that it always makes it hard to pass. And on top of that, we're running over a second faster than what we normally run there, so it's going to be that much more difficult to pass. The car becomes more aerodynamically dependent, something you don't normally have at a short track. I'm not sure the racing will be as good as everybody hopes, but the good thing is that as long as the surface holds up throughout the weekend, it'll be a surface that'll last for a very long time and probably only get better with age."
Will the new pavement allow for some two-groove racing once some rubber is laid down on its surface?
"It's hard to say. But you're definitely going to see a new track record. That's for sure. We're flying around that place."
Has the new pavement forced you to alter your line through the corners?
"You definitely had to pay more attention. They didn't have any lines painted on the track when we were there, so it was a little bit harder not having any reference points to go off of. And by running a second faster, you had to totally adjust everything that you used to do in driving the car there."
Talk about your 360 winged sprint car win at Sedalia.
"That was good. They draw for starting positions in the heat race and we got a pretty lucky draw when we drew the pole for the third heat. We won our heat race and that put us inside the second row for the 'A' Main, and we won it. Every time I get in the sprint car I get more comfortable. It's the second time this year I've been able to run at Sedalia and the fourth time in the last two years. Running those races that close to each other helps me remember what I learned the last time I was there."
You've mentioned in the past that the 360 winged sprint car has been one of the more difficult cars for you to drive. With another race and another win under your belt, are you feeling more comfortable driving those types of cars?
"I'm definitely getting the hang of it. I still have a long way to go, but I'm definitely making a lot of progress. I think this last weekend we made some huge gains and my comfort level and my confidence level went up quite a bit."
How did you do the next night at Knoxville?
"Because we hadn't been there before we had to start at the tail end of the heat race. So, we started 11th in our heat race. And since we were in the first heat, the track made passing a little bit difficult since it hadn't quite worked itself in that early in the evening. Still, we managed to get up to seventh. But at Knoxville they use a passing point system plus your finishing position. We didn't have enough points to make the 'A' Main. But the points we did earn allowed us to start outside the second row of the 'B' Main. Starting fourth was a lot better, because they took the top-four from the 'B' Main and put them into the 'A' Main. We ended up winning that, which started us 17th in the 'A' Main. It was a 15-lap feature, and after starting 17th we finished sixth - pretty good night for my first time at Knoxville."
With all that you've had to put up with lately in the Nextel Cup Series, was an off-weekend spent driving a sprint car the best form of therapy?
"Absolutely. The fans at Sedalia and Knoxville were great. We had huge autograph lines after the races were over and we stayed until everybody who wanted an autograph got an autograph, but the lines weren't so overwhelming that we were going to be there for eight hours. We probably spent a half-hour to 45 minutes at both tracks signing autographs, and everybody who was there left happy and was appreciative that we were there. It was definitely a good getaway after all the garbage we've been receiving the last couple of weeks."
For you, is Richmond the best race track to have next on the schedule, as you have three Cup wins and two Truck wins there and you're coming off a very satisfying weekend where you won doing what you love - driving sprint cars?
"I think it's going to be quite a bit different this time than it's been in the past. But it's still Richmond. It's just going to take awhile to where the surface gives up and two-groove racing comes back into the equation. My personal feelings are that we're running a little bit too fast there. Anytime you're running the speeds we're running at a track that small, it makes it more difficult to pass. But that's a factor only time can take care of. Either way, we'll be sure to make the best of it when we get there this weekend."
New pavement aside, what's the key to being successful 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. Old pavement, new pavement, the same theory applies, and 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 there two years ago, 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."
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 1-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."