TONY STEWART Sequel in Sonoma ATLANTA (June 20, 2006) - Despite sustaining a fractured right scapula four weeks ago in an accident at Charlotte (N.C.) and suffering two DNFs (Did Not Finishes) in his past four NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races, ...
Sequel in Sonoma
ATLANTA (June 20, 2006) - Despite sustaining a fractured right scapula four weeks ago in an accident at Charlotte (N.C.) and suffering two DNFs (Did Not Finishes) in his past four NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races, Tony Stewart is still having a better season to date than he did last year - the one in which he claimed his second Cup Series championship.
The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing has scored seven top-fives - including an April win at Martinsville (Va.) - and has led a total of 807 laps in the 15 races run this year to put him sixth in points, 367 markers arrears series leader Jimmie Johnson.
Fifteen races into last season, Stewart was winless. His four top-fives and 641 laps led placed him sixth in points, 311 behind series leader Johnson.
In 2006, Stewart has earned three more top-fives, landed that elusive first victory, and led 166 more laps than he did at this point last year. He's also scored 66 more points entering round 16 of 36 on the Nextel Cup schedule.
So how did Stewart win his second championship in four years?
It started with a dominating performance at the Infineon Raceway road course in Sonoma, Calif., where Stewart led 39 of the race's 110 laps to score his first win of the 2005 season.
In addition to a trophy, Sonoma provided momentum to the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team. Wins at Daytona (Fla.), New Hampshire, Indianapolis and the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) road course followed. From Sonoma through the series' return trip to New Hampshire in September, Stewart never finished lower than eighth - a span of 12 races. Along the way, he rose from sixth in points to first.
And as the series returns to Sonoma for this Sunday's Dodge/SaveMart 350k, Stewart is intent on recreating the summer hot streak that catapulted him into last year's title chase.
You've won the last three road course races and five altogether - two at Sonoma and three at Watkins Glen. Does success at one venue transfer to the other?
"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."
What does it take to win at Sonoma?
"You've just got to have a good handling car. Aerodynamics are not the least bit important at Sonoma, which is great because it's one of the few tracks that we go to that we don't have to worry about aero balance or anything like that. It's just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day and having good pit stops and pit strategy and staying out of trouble.
"A lot can happen at Sonoma. You've got to be patient all day. You get a lot of cautions there and a lot of guys end up beating and banging on each other. I mean, the cars look like they've been to a race at Martinsville because it's a short road course. Save that car for the last 20 laps because that's the critical time. Do what you have to do to get through the first 70 laps, but those last 20 are the ones when you really have to go, and you need your car to be in one piece to make it happen."
How is your shoulder and do you expect it to present any problems at Sonoma?
"We had a chance to test at VIR (Virginia International Raceway) last week. For us, it was a good opportunity to gauge where the shoulder is in regard to its progress. We made it through the whole day. Obviously, at the end of the day it was pretty sore. But considering how much time we have between when the accident happened and Sonoma, I think we're going to be fine. And after swinging that hammer around on the car at Michigan, I'd say it's back to being 100 percent."
(On lap 22 of last Sunday's rain-shortened Nextel Cup race at Michigan, a nudge from the bumper of Jeff Green's Chevrolet sent Stewart backward into the SAFER barrier on the outside retaining wall of turn three. As he slid across the race track, Stewart was clipped by the Chevrolet of Clint Bowyer. Heavy front and rear damage was the result, with Stewart steering a smoking wreck of a race car into the garage area for lengthy repairs. Eager to fix his car, Stewart joined his Joe Gibbs Racing crew in making repairs to the No. 20 machine. Wielding a rubber mallet, Stewart went to work on his car's left front fender in an attempt to restore it to its original contours. - Ed)
After Denny Hamlin - your teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing - credited his first career Nextel Cup victory at Pocono (Pa.) to playing racing video games, much has been made about how much video games can actually help a driver. Can video games aid a driver?
"I think it helps you see what a race track looks like from inside the car, especially if you've never been there before. But as far as the physical aspects of it, I'm not sure it's all that it's cracked up to be. Guys like Denny who love to play video games - they'd play even if they weren't learning anything from it. I think they want to believe that they're learning something from it. It justifies them playing the games a little more. I've raced sprint car games and I've raced NASCAR games and I haven't learned anything on a NASCAR game that's helped me in a real race car on a real track."
Considering how unique road course racing is, would a video game help prepare for Sonoma?
"Yes, but just to learn the layout of the race track. It's not that it's not going to teach you some things, but it's not going to make you win a race at a race track. It's going to give you an idea as to what to expect as far as what the track actually looks like from inside the car, and it gives you an idea how you're going to drive the car. But there hasn't been a video game yet that can replicate what the real race car feels like. You're only going to learn so much from a video game."
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."
Does road racing require more finesse or more manhandling depending on where you are on the race track?
"Track position dictates where and when you need to finesse and when you need to just go at it. Track position is a big deal anywhere these days, but it's definitely a big deal on the road courses. It's hard to pass there from the standpoint that there are a couple of good braking zones where you can pass. But the thing is, everyone is so even that you've got be able to out drag race them down the straightaways after you out brake them going into a corner. Getting the car to turn and handle is a big part of it, but you still have to be able to run well down the straightaway. At Sonoma, you've got to get your car handling or else it doesn't really matter how much horsepower you've got. Handling well at Watkins Glen is an important factor, but it seems like horsepower is a much bigger part of the equation versus Sonoma."
Since you race on ovals 34 times a year, do you have to adjust your mindset to run road courses twice a year?
"We've won at both of the road courses on the circuit. I always look forward to the road courses just because it's a weekend of something different from what we've done the past five or 10 weekends. We go to a road course just like we do any track. We go there to win. I take it just as seriously as I do any of the other races. I think we, as an organization, take a lot of pride in our track record on the road courses. I know it's just another race out there, but with the fact we've won three in a row, that's a string we're pretty proud of and we'd like to keep going, obviously."
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."
You've made quite a few starts in the Rolex Sports Car Series. How much has racing in that 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."
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 Sports Car Series, 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 (14), 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."
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."
Why are some guys better road course drivers than others?
"Because some work harder at it than others. With some of those guys it's the old saying, 'It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks.' Some of these guys have done nothing but race stock cars on ovals all their lives, but even though it's still a stock car, when it comes time to run the road courses it's something totally different. It just depends on their attitude when they get there and how good they want to be."
Is it a matter of experience, or are there other factors?
"It plays a big role, especially with guys who have a good road racing background. They're still only going to be as good as their car is. But if their car is right, they're tough. And they make you earn every bit of it because they have the knowledge to be good on road courses."
What is your favorite aspect of the Nextel Cup Series running road courses?
"There's such a diverse talent of drivers - guys that do not like road racing, guys that love road racing, guys who are road racing specialists that come in who typically don't run the Cup cars very often. It's fun to see those guys and the top Cup guys at road races go head to head with each other. It's kind of like a traveling series that goes to a local track, where the series regulars take on the local talent that knows the ins and the outs of the race track. It's neat to see the road course specialists get in our type of cars and race against guys that don't have a chance to race road courses as much."