TONY STEWART Successful in Sonoma ATLANTA (June 20, 2005) - "Success on a road course breeds success. If you have some success on a road course, you're probably going to like racing there. If you don't have success on a road course, it's ...
Successful in Sonoma
ATLANTA (June 20, 2005) - "Success on a road course breeds success. If you have some success on a road course, you're probably going to like racing there. If you don't have success on a road course, it's probably a style of racing you're not going to like." So says Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.
Stewart's words are appropriate for this week, as Sunday is the Dodge/SaveMart 350k at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., site of the first of just two road course races on the Nextel Cup schedule. The other road course venue is Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, site of Stewart's most recent Nextel Cup win, 30 races ago in August of last year.
But the winding, 1.99-mile layout in California's wine country is the farthest venue NASCAR teams travel to, and for some drivers the trip only gets longer the moment they begin turning left and right. It's a different kind of racing in a different kind of region, and it requires the appropriate mindset.
Needless to say, Stewart's mind is set. Thanks to three Nextel Cup road course wins, Stewart enjoys road racing and views the departure from NASCAR's traditional oval tracks as a good thing. In fact, two road course races in a single year aren't enough for the 2002 Cup Series champion. For the past three years Stewart has become more and more involved in the Rolex Grand Am Series, a sports car series dedicated to road course racing.
Three times Stewart has competed in the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona, and this year he enjoyed his best finish there, placing third with co-drivers Jan Lammars and Andy Wallace to notch a spot on the podium. Two more Grand Am races await Stewart - June 30 at Daytona (Fla.) and Aug. 12 at Watkins Glen. And just as he was at Daytona before gearbox troubles thwarted his efforts, Stewart will again be a threat to win.
Sonoma marks Stewart's return to road racing since his 24 Hour run at Daytona. And while the sports car Stewart drove at Daytona differs greatly from his Joe Gibbs Racing-prepared Home Depot Chevrolet, it still gives him a leg up on the majority of his counterparts whose most recent road course race came last August at The Glen.
Fresh off a second-place finish at Michigan International Speedway, Stewart is ready to steer his newfound momentum through the twists and turns of Sonoma.
How much has racing in the Rolex Sports Car Series helped for when you head to places like Sonoma and Watkins Glen with your Home Depot Chevrolet?
"I would like to believe I've learned some things. I'm not sure there is any one particular thing that I've noticed, but I do feel like the more you do it the better you are at it. Road racing isn't something I have to get acclimated to because running them feels pretty natural to me. I enjoy the road courses, and as we get ready to go to places like Sonoma I really look forward to it."
Did your near-win in this year's Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona make you hungry to get back to a road course?
"It certainly made me look forward to Sonoma. I enjoyed the Crawford car I drove in the 24 Hour race even though it's a totally different type of car than The Home Depot Chevrolet we'll run at Sonoma. It's good knowing that the last time I ran a road course I did pretty well, so Sonoma does give me something to look forward to."
With seemingly half the field having a diverse racing background and with many of the Nextel Cup drivers having joined you in competing in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, is there such a thing as a road course ringer anymore?
"Yes and no. There are road course guys who are good at road course racing, but they're not used to running stock cars. But there are guys who are used to running stock cars who aren't used to running road courses. But if you look at the history of road course racing, the guys who come from a road racing background seem to be able to get into any kind of car and do fairly well. So I think they do have an advantage, but maybe not as much as they had six or seven years ago."
Considering your recent history of racing sports cars on road courses, do you consider yourself a road course ringer?
"I don't think so. If you look at how many Nextel Cup races I've run on road courses (12), there are a lot of veterans who have run two or three times the amount of road course races I have. I don't think you can call me a ringer. I think you can call me a guy who is solid on the road courses because we've won at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, but I don't think you can call me a ringer."
How would you describe your road racing style - refined, banzai or somewhere in between?
"It's 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."
You won the most recent road course race held last year at Watkins Glen. Can your success at Watkins Glen translate to success this weekend at Sonoma?
"The two tracks, while both road courses, are still pretty different. At Watkins Glen you don't have to finesse the throttle near as much as you do at Sonoma. When you get the car turned, you can get in the gas and then stay in the gas. Watkins Glen is much faster than Sonoma. I think there are the same amounts of passing opportunities, but because of the speeds that you're able to run at The Glen, brakes become a much bigger factor than I think they are at Sonoma. It's pretty much a horsepower track. It's horsepower and aerodynamics just like it is anywhere else we go. It just happens to be in the form of a road course. Sonoma has a lot less grip in the race track. You have to really be careful with the throttle there, and that puts more of the race in the driver's hands. If anything, Sonoma is probably more technical than Watkins Glen because there's hardly any time where you get a chance to rest. You're always either shifting or accelerating or braking or turning or doing something. At Watkins Glen, at least on the frontstretch and on the backstretch, there are three straightaways where you get a little bit of time to take a break. Watkins Glen seems to be more in the crew's hands and the engine builder's hands. Obviously, there's still a job that I need to do in the race car, but I'm relying on the equipment and the crew a lot more at Watkins Glen."
Explain a lap around Infineon Raceway.
"Ever since they redesigned it (prior to the 2002 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 rumble 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 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."
From your rookie year in 1999 - where you attended the Bob Bondurant Driving School before your first road course race in a stock car - to where you are now, can you describe how you've become one of the better road course racers on the circuit?
"Chris Cook was my instructor at Bondurant, and Chris spent a lot of time working with me individually. He had spent a little bit of time in a Cup car and understood what my challenges were and what I needed to get used to - having him as an instructor was definitely an advantage. He just taught me a lot of things that gave me a really good base of how to approach road course racing. And as time went on, I've learned some techniques that I like a little better and actually help me. It's just a matter of trying to find stuff that you like and stuff that's going to work for you."
If a driver hates racing at road courses, is he already beaten simply because he doesn't have the proper mindset to compete there?
"They've already got a strike against them for that reason. If a guy goes there with the attitude that they're not going to enjoy it no matter what, then that's probably what'll happen. Until they get the mindset that they're going to enjoy running a road course and that they're going to have fun with it, they'll have a strike against them. Success on a road course breeds success. If you have some success on a road course you're probably going to like racing there. If you don't have success on a road course, it's probably a style of racing you're not going to like."