Tony Stewart Rock On ATLANTA (Feb. 17, 2004) - A return to "real racing" greets NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers this weekend, as round two of the 36-race schedule rolls into North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. There will be no carburetor...
ATLANTA (Feb. 17, 2004) - A return to "real racing" greets NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers this weekend, as round two of the 36-race schedule rolls into North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. There will be no carburetor restrictor plates. No drafting. No 10-day schedule of events.
It will be a typical Nextel Cup weekend, with qualifying on Friday, practice on Saturday and racing on Sunday. And perhaps the most important element to the weekend will be a shift in focus from aerodynamics and creative engineering to mechanical know-how and driver feel.
The gritty, 1.017-mile oval chews up tires and puts a premium on handling. All the horsepower in the world is worthless if you can't put it to the pavement, and Rockingham provides a daunting challenge for crews looking to transfer every bit of their engine's power to the rear wheels of their race car. Proper balance of a car's handling characteristics, to where it's neither too tight nor too loose, is the key to success at Rockingham.
You arrived in Daytona on Jan. 29 for the Rolex 24 Hour race and you didn't leave until after the Daytona 500 - an 18-day span. How much of a relief is it to get back to a normal three-day race weekend?
"I think everybody's pretty worn out after being in Daytona for so long. Rockingham means a normal routine and a chance for the crew guys to get back to their families for a couple of days before heading to another race track."
Why do you look forward to Rockingham so much after racing at Daytona?
"What you do at Rockingham is solely based on what you and your team can do with your race car, not what drafting line you're in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move. Once we get away from Daytona everything kind of settles into a groove. We're back in the weekly grind. I enjoy going to Rockingham because I really feel that's where our season starts. That's a track where you don't really worry about what everybody else's car is doing. You worry about what your car is doing. You're racing the race track. You're not racing everybody else. It's a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things. Once you leave Rockingham, you feel like the season has officially started."
Rockingham has provided some very exciting racing in recent years. 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 a very difficult track to get right. But if you can get your car driving well you can have a pretty good day."
Rockingham has always been a track that's tough on tires. With the current generation of Goodyear tires being employed in NASCAR, is that still the case?
"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 (turns) 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."
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 your 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."
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."