ATLANTA (Nov. 4, 2003) - North Carolina Speedway in the tiny hamlet of Rockingham is a tough and gritty race track that demands a lot from a team, a driver and their equipment. Sunday's Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 at the 1.017-mile oval will...
ATLANTA (Nov. 4, 2003) - North Carolina Speedway in the tiny hamlet of Rockingham is a tough and gritty race track that demands a lot from a team, a driver and their equipment. Sunday's Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 at the 1.017-mile oval will be no different, and that suits Tony Stewart - driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet - just fine.
Despite the notoriety that comes with being the reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion and one of the elite drivers in a sport that is second only to the NFL in terms of television viewership, Stewart augments his modern-day celebrity with a racer's old-school resolve. He prefers the more difficult racing venues like Rockingham, where a driver's finesse and a race car's handling trump an engineer's fuel calculations. If his prominence is derived from scrappy race wins - 17 of them at last count - then Stewart's attitude is "so be it." If his fame comes from appearances on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" or the game show "Pyramid" - which Stewart did just last week in Los Angeles - then he's more apt to simply put up with it.
Racing at Rockingham is like Stewart - old school. It's far away from any top-20 media market, and wheeling a 3,400-pound race car around 'The Rock' for 393 laps takes skill and savvy. For Stewart, a blue jeans and T-shirt type of guy, Rockingham is a blue jeans and T-shirt type of track. Despite a best finish of fourth (three times) and only a total of 17 laps led in his nine career starts at Rockingham, Stewart appreciates the track's tenacious nature. A win, however, would make him appreciate it even more.
Also looking for a win at Rockingham is Stewart's pit crew. On Saturday following the NASCAR Busch Series race, the #20 over-the-wall crew will participate in the Union 76 Pit Crew Competition. This timed event places the top-25 teams in the Winston Cup standings against each other in a race to determine who can perform a flawless pit stop in the least amount of time. Joe Gibbs Racing won the event with the #18 team in 1999, and the #20 team is looking to even the score in 2003.
Your pit crew will be competing in the Union 76 Pit Crew Competition this Saturday. They've consistently delivered good, solid pit stops all year. What do you expect of them in the competition?
"It seems like this pit crew challenge is kind of like me going to Indianapolis. They put so much pressure on themselves to perform well for that event, I almost feel like they try too hard at times. But they give it everything they have. I can promise you one thing, I'm probably more nervous for them than I am of myself making a mistake. I'd be devastated if I made a mistake that cost them a shot at winning the pit crew championship. I'm just so nervous for them because I know how badly they want to do well there. I always try to go over to the shop that week for pit stop practice and drive the pit stop car, just to see the hard work and effort those guys put in - not only the week before the event but all year. To see the intensity on their faces as they gear up for the competition, it's the same kind of intensity you would see of a baseball team getting ready to go into the World Series or a football team getting ready for the Super Bowl. These guys would break their arm if that's what it would take to win the deal."
Rockingham seems to have provided some very exciting as of late. Why is that?
"Rockingham is fun because it's one of the few tracks that's really a driver's track. When we all qualify we're always down on the bottom. And in the first 10 laps of a race run we're racing on the bottom. But guys who can get their cars driving well will stay down on the bottom. Guys whose cars won't stay on the bottom - they may be able to get their cars working really well on the top of the race track. It's a place where you can run two- or three-wide at times. You race the race track there. It's a lot like Darlington (S.C.) in that respect. It's not a track where you want to get suckered into the guys running behind you or the guy who's a couple car-lengths in front of you. You really have to pay attention to what your car is doing on the race track, because it's easy to abuse your car there."
How difficult is it to set up The Home Depot Chevrolet for a long, green flag run at Rockingham?
"It's a pretty tough battle. The competition level is so tight there now, whereas in the past it was a little easier to pace yourself and make sure you were saving your tires for a long run. It's a little easier now to burn the tires off. It's very difficult. It seems like there are some teams that have figured out a really good balance in their car to where they're really good at the beginning of a run and they're also good at the end of a run. There are some teams that are really fast at the beginning of a run but they fall off after 20 laps. Then there are teams that really don't come on strong until about 40 laps into a run and for the last half of the run they're really quick compared to the rest of the field. It's a big challenge. The tires fall off and the groove moves around. It's just a very difficult track to get right. But if you can get your car driving well there you can have a pretty good day."
Rockingham has always been a track that's tough on tires. But with the current generation of Goodyear tire being so hard, is tire wear as big an issue at Rockingham as it has been in the past?
"It's still hard on tires, but the tires just don't start off as quick. The performance still falls off, but not near as bad as it used to. But the good thing is that it does fall off, and that's what has been the strong suit of our series. When a guy's handling goes away and he doesn't have the performance of his tires to fall back on, that's when he'll slow down. And that gives other drivers, where if they have a car that's driving well, the opportunity to pass."
Is it safe to say that you run well when the performance of the tires fall off, typically toward the end of a run?
"I think so. We don't always focus on how fast we can make our car for two or three laps. Instead, we look for what'll make The Home Depot Chevrolet good for a long run. I think that's been one of our strong suits - making sure that our car is good throughout the run, especially through the middle stage of a run in relation to how fast we can go and what kind of a pace we can maintain."
Explain a lap around Rockingham.
"The two ends of the track are pretty different from one another. They look, geometrically, about the same. The entry into (turn) one is a little bit wide, and it gets tight off of (turn) two. But it's just the opposite in (turns) three and four. Once you get into three you can pretty much get in the gas pretty hard, especially if you're on fresh tires. Then you can run through four really hard. Compare that to one and two, where you can run in there a little harder, but it's a little trickier coming off of two. It's definitely got its own unique set of challenges."
Back when you were competing in the NASCAR Busch Series in 1998 you were involved in a pretty spirited battle with Matt Kenseth during that year's spring race at Rockingham. Kenseth ended up winning after putting a bump-and-run move on you in turns three and four on the final lap. What do you remember about that race?
"What I remember about it is that I overdrove my tires. I basically burned my tires off, and Matt did a better job of managing his tires for the length of the run. We were both running for our first Busch Series victory. I didn't do a very good job of getting through (turns) three and four on the last corner of the last lap and he gave me a little nudge. He could've hit me hard enough to crash me, but he didn't. He just barely nudged me up out of the way and I ran second and he won. Looking back, we both had good days there."
Drawing on your own experience from last year in racing for the Winston Cup championship, what do you think point leader Matt Kenseth is going through now as the season winds down?
"Every week that you lead the points it weighs on you harder and harder, and Matt has led the points for so long now that I'm sure it's weighing on him. But Matt is in a pretty good situation now. Every race that we go through now means that we're getting closer to the end, and his odds of winning the championship increase drastically. He's in a little more comfortable position now that there are only two races left, but it's still stressful. As a race car driver you work all your life to get into a situation where you can just be in the top racing series in the United States, let alone have the opportunity to hopefully win the Winston Cup championship. It's very stressful. There's not a lot you can say to comfort a guy. You just tell him to have fun and enjoy it and not worry about, because worrying about it isn't going to make it any better. You just have to go out and do what you did to get you into this position in the first place, and I think that's what Matt is doing."