Tony Stewart -- steady as a rock. ATLANTA (Oct. 29, 2002) - In his seven previous NASCAR Winston Cup Series races at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Tony Stewart has finished outside of the top-10 just once. A respectable 12th place...
Tony Stewart -- steady as a rock.
ATLANTA (Oct. 29, 2002) - In his seven previous NASCAR Winston Cup Series races at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Tony Stewart has finished outside of the top-10 just once. A respectable 12th place effort in the 1999 fall race is Stewart's worst showing at the 1.017-mile oval, while his three fourth-place finishes in the past three spring races count for Stewart's best Rockingham outings. At the track known as "The Rock," Stewart is fittingly steady as a rock.
As the Winston Cup point leader with a 146-point margin over nearest championship pursuer Mark Martin, steadiness is the trait that will take Stewart to his first Winston Cup championship. Upon winning at the Watkins Glen (N.Y) road course in mid-August, Stewart has tallied six top-fives and nine top-10s for an average finish of eighth. In the process, he has come from fourth in points to first in the span of nine races, taking the point lead after his second-place run at Talladega (Ala.) in early October.
Sunday's race at Rockingham marks the third to last race of the season, and to wrap up the championship, Stewart simply needs to maintain his steady ways. Ninth is his magic number, for if Stewart finishes ninth or better in the remaining three races, the championship will be his regardless of the performance of any other driver.
Augmenting Stewart's driving prowess has been the ability of his pit crew. Week in and week out, The Home Depot over-the-wall gang has delivered swift and sure service. On Saturday, they'll get the chance to display just how swift and sure they are to the other teams in the Winston Cup garage when the Union 76 Pit Crew Competition gets underway.
One at a time, pit crews from the top-25 teams in points get one chance to make the quickest, mistake-free pit stop. The sudden death, overtime-type environment allows for no do-overs and no consolation rounds. May the best team win... and may that team wear orange and black.
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, but that's what makes Rockingham a fun race track."
What does it take to get around Rockingham quickly?
"Making sure the car has a really good balance to where you're not having to use the tires up by leaning on them hard to go fast. If you can get the car driving well enough that you can run a good pace without pushing the car, then normally halfway through a run you're really good and you're really starting to pull away from guys whose cars aren't quite as balanced as yours. They're having to use up their tires a little more than you."
What do you do if your car isn't balanced?
"You just make sure you don't lean on them (tires) any more than you have to. If you have to run hard to keep the pace, then you have to run hard. But you just try to be as easy on them as you can, maybe be smoother on the race track by finding a line that's a little less abrasive by changing the balance of the car. There are some spots on the track that'll make your car freer and some that'll make it tighter. Depending on what your car's balance is doing, you need to move around on the race track to help it out."
Rockingham has always been a track that's tough on tires. But with this new 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. We went to some places this year, like Bristol (Tenn.), where the performance of the tires didn't fall off and you could run 140 laps on a set of tires. As long as you were in front of someone, the guy behind you couldn't get around you because he just wasn't quick enough. Having the performance of the tires fall off is a part of what makes Rockingham's race so much fun for us, because when the tires wear out, the driver has to step up."
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 Pontiac 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."
Joe Gibbs Racing already has one championship with Bobby Labonte in 2000, and in 2002 the organization is on the cusp of garnering another championship with you at the wheel. What makes Joe Gibbs Racing a championship-caliber organization?
"I think it's just the people involved. I've seen cases where there's been five resumes with five guys with the same qualifications to do the same job, but Joe (Gibbs) and Zippy (Greg Zipadelli, #20 crew chief) and Jimmy Makar (team manager and #18 crew chief), they know which guy is right for our program and which guy personality-wise is going to mesh with the guys. That's important. Just having a guy who is qualified to do the job doesn't mean that it'll work out. They're really good at knowing which guy is the right guy to pick as far as keeping all the personalities in sync with each other at the race shop. That's an important piece to the puzzle."
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."