Tony Stewart to Infineon and beyond ATLANTA (June 17, 2003) - Tony Stewart's first road course victory came in 2001, at what was then known as Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Since then, Sears Point has grown in both name and stature, ...
Tony Stewart to Infineon and beyond
ATLANTA (June 17, 2003) - Tony Stewart's first road course victory came in 2001, at what was then known as Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Since then, Sears Point has grown in both name and stature, becoming Infineon Raceway and increasing its seating capacity to 85,000.
Stewart's road course stature has also grown in that same time period, with a second-place finish in last year's Sonoma race that preceded his second career road course win a little over a month later at Watkins Glen (N.Y.). It was finishes like those that aided the growth of Stewart's name, as he added NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion to his title upon the conclusion of the 2002 season.
And while Stewart's title defense hasn't exactly gone according to plan, the past three races during the month of June - Dover (Del.), Pocono (Pa.) and Brooklyn (Mich.) - have produced finishes of fourth, first and eighth, respectively. The string of top-10s has brought Stewart from 20th to 12th in the championship point standings, and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team is hardly ready to cede their championship aspirations to anyone.
The Dodge/Save Mart 350k at Sonoma is their next stop, and with a track record that reads one pole, one win and an average finish of seventh, Sonoma provides the latest opportunity for Stewart and Company to continue their front-running success.
You tested June 3 at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) in Danville in preparation for the Dodge/Save Mart 350k. How similar is VIR to Sears Point?
"It's fairly close. It's a nice facility. It has a really long front straightaway that has a 180-degree hairpin turn. You're in second gear when you get there, so it simulates going into turn 11 at Sonoma. And it kind of simulates going into turn one at Watkins Glen. You can learn a lot from the braking aspect there. Basically, when it comes to turning left and right, whatever makes it turn left and right at VIR is what'll make it turn left and right anywhere you go."
Explain a lap around Infineon Raceway.
"Ever since they redesigned it before last year's race, going into turn one is different from where you pass the start/finish line. It's a lot harder to get up the hill than it used to be, but it's still the same classic, off-camber, blind, right-hand corner at the top of the hill - which has always been one of my favorite spots on the track. Then you go into the two esses that are uphill, and after that you go over a blind peak and down another hill to the new section of the track - where you can actually run over top of the rumple strips and get right up next to the retaining wall. You've got another hairpin corner to the right, and then you start in the old classic section of the esses, but the geography around that area has changed. They opened it up and made it more fan friendly, but the track in that section is still the same. The biggest and most critical passing area is going into turn 11. Then you have to get up off that corner - that's a big acceleration corner - and it's probably one of the hardest parts in getting around there."
Is it controlled chaos inside the car, with your hands and arms constantly moving from the steering wheel to the shifter?
"You never get a chance to rest. You might get one second to rest in a couple sections of the track, but it's literally one second at a time. You have to have a comfortable car - something that you're comfortable sitting in. At the same time, if it's driving well, you can conserve your energy and be around to race hard at the end of the day."
Drivers will complain of "wheel hop" when driving road courses. What is "wheel hop" and how do you prevent it?
"Most of the time it's during the downshift period in the braking zones, where the rear wheels lock up and literally hop down the track. But I'm not going to give up my secrets as to how to prevent it."
Is turn 11 the only passing zone at Sonoma?
"No, there are a couple of other areas. Going down into what I guess would be turn four and turn seven - two consecutive corners - you've got a couple of areas that are small braking zones. But the big one is going into turn 11. That's the biggest passing zone."
Is the notion of going slower to go faster probably best realized at Sonoma?
"The guys who are really good with throttle control are the guys who are good at Sonoma. Guys who are just used to mashing the gas struggle at Sonoma. It's one of those tracks that challenges you physically and mentally and makes you stay on top of your game all day."
How would you describe your road racing style - refined, banzai or somewhere in between?
"Somewhere in between. There are times when you have to banzai and other times when you need to take care of your car. I'd like to think that when I'm in the part of the race where I need to be taking care of my car - I do that. And when it comes time to banzai it at the end of the race - I'm ready to do that too."
Most everyone on the Winston Cup tour has been racing on road courses for a long time. With all of the experience you have collectively, is there such a thing as a road course ringer anymore?
"I think so. You look at Robby Gordon. Every year he's a standout when we're at the road courses. Anytime you bring some of these road course guys in they're a threat. But Robby kind of stands out as the biggest threat because he runs a Winston Cup car week-in and week-out, but he's a very, very talented road racer also. So you kind of gauge yourself off him all weekend."
Your performance on the road courses has always been good, even during your rookie year. How were you able to adapt to road racing so quickly?
"I raced on road courses in go-karts when I was younger. So, I've driven road courses before. During my rookie year before the Sonoma race I went out to the Bob Bondurant Driving School and had Chris Cook as my instructor. He was really good at knowing what I needed to learn to drive a Cup car on a road course. He'd run a couple of Busch races, so he really knew what areas I needed to focus on. Having him as an instructor gave me things to think about before we went to Sonoma and Watkins Glen. That gave me the mindset that I could be good on the road courses."
Because there are only two road course races on the Winston Cup schedule, do you feel that that aspect of the #20 team's overall program doesn't receive as much attention?
"Not really, because everybody's kind of in the same boat. We all only run two road course races a year. I feel like road courses are actually one of our strong suits, and we proved that at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. So overall, I feel like The Home Depot team has a pretty good road course program. I feel like that's one of our assets right now. It's just not something that we focus really hard on because we do only have two races on the schedule that are road courses."
Is it tough for a team to justify focusing their resources on a road course program and perhaps neglect an aspect of their oval track program?
"I think we do a pretty good job of allotting the proper amount of time to the road courses. It's not that you neglect the ovals. The road courses pay the same amount of points to win that the ovals do. You've got to prepare in the same way and you've got to prepare with the same intensity. We want to win both of those races just like we want to win everywhere else we go. It's important that you do concentrate on the road courses and not take the attitude that they're not as important as the rest of the races because there are only two of them."
Does NASCAR need road racing as part of its schedule?
"I think we need dirt races, but I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon. It doesn't matter to me. All I care about is that every week I've got to go out and beat all the other guys that are out on the race track when they drop the green flag. I enjoy it. To me, it's kind of a nice change of pace. It's nice to do something different twice a year."