TONY STEWART Sonoma Brings a Breath of Fresh Air ATLANTA (June 17, 2008) -- The crisp wind and accompanying salt water scent that greets NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams as they land in the San Francisco/Oakland area for the road course race in ...
Sonoma Brings a Breath of Fresh Air
ATLANTA (June 17, 2008) -- The crisp wind and accompanying salt water scent that greets NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams as they land in the San Francisco/Oakland area for the road course race in Sonoma, Calif., offers more than just a breath of fresh air.
The ability to turn left and right on a layout that sends drivers up and down hills, through tight corners and quick switchbacks also offers teams a proverbial breath of fresh air, for Sonoma is the antithesis of the bread-and-butter ovals that make up the majority of the Sprint Cup schedule.
For Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350k at the 10-turn, 1.99-mile road course in Sonoma provides a reprieve from the frustrations that have come with running the current-generation race car in the turbulent wake or "dirty air" of the cars around him.
Aerodynamics are less important at Sonoma than they are at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, site of last Sunday's Sprint Cup race where Stewart posted a solid fifth-place result. While the top-five effort was appreciated, especially after enduring finishes of 18th or worse in five of the six races that preceded Michigan, Stewart fought an ill-handling race car during each lap around the 2-mile oval that was made even more fitful by the pockets of air created by the cars around him.
That's not a problem at Sonoma, where passes are made by out-braking, out-accelerating and perhaps most importantly, out-willing one's competitors.
Stewart has driven his Home Depot machine into the corners deeper, hit the throttle harder and willed his way to six road course wins in Sprint Cup, including the series' last road course race at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International in August 2007. Two of those six wins have come at Sonoma, including Stewart's first career road course win in 2001. The other Sonoma win came during Stewart's second championship season in 2005, when the driver of the No. 20 scored career win No. 20.
Perhaps the reason aerodynamics aren't an issue for Stewart at the road courses is because he's so far ahead of the competition that there's never any dirty air to worry about. Stewart has started within the first two rows nine times in his 18 career road course races in Sprint Cup, and has qualified outside the top-10 just three times. He's finished in the top-two eight times, the top-10 12 times and has led a total of 256 laps. His average road course finish is eighth, with only two finishes outside the top-15.
Winless since reaching Watkins Glen's victory lane last August -- a span of 29 races -- Stewart views Sonoma as the breath of fresh air he needs to log his first win of 2008 and the 33rd of his career.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
With six road course wins, do you feel you have a better opportunity to win on a road course than you do at some of the other oval tracks you visit?
"It's definitely a place I feel like we've got the potential to win, even before we make a single lap."
How much do you look forward to racing on the road courses?
"I love the two road courses. It's nice because it kind of breaks up the monotony of the season. We do the same thing every week and it's nice to have two road course races thrown in the mix that give us a chance to do something a little bit off-center for all of us. It's kind of like the 'Prelude' with no dirt added, unless you drive off, which a lot of us do. We still get a dirt aspect in it, I guess."
Do you run a road course race differently than you run an oval, in that when you run an oval there seems to be a large swath of time in the middle part of the race where you conserve and plan your strategy for the last 100 miles? Are you able to conserve during any part of a road course race, or do you have to go hard every lap?
"You have to play the race strategy out. It's such a long track that guys don't go a lap down as easily as they do on an oval. You have to run as hard as you have to in order to stay ahead of everybody. And when you get yourself in a position where you can be easy on your equipment, especially the tires, you take that opportunity, because if it is a long run, a lot of times that'll work out in your favor. If your car's not right, you can't just keep pushing it, or else you'll drive the tires right off of it."
Do you consider yourself a contender at every road course race?
"I look forward to the trip because we've had good luck there. If you listen to Robby Gordon, he says he was the fastest car last year and we passed him and drove away from him in the race, so I guess he missed the orange car that went by him. We were the fastest car, no doubt. We just got bit on fuel mileage and that's part of it. We did everything we could do and it was disappointing, but we left there knowing that we had done our jobs and we had a fast race car and we were bit by a circumstance that we couldn't control."
You and Jeff Gordon have been the ones to beat on the road courses, for if it's not you winning, it's typically been him. And your battle last year at Watkins Glen was emblematic of that, for you led three times for 20 laps and he led three times for 51 before going off course while you pressured him for the lead. Do you feel there's mutual respect for what you two have accomplished on the road courses?
"I think we had a better battle at Sonoma three years ago. Jeff broke a transmission that day, but we had a good battle up front to where neither one of us were saving anything at that point. We both felt the importance of being in the lead and showing the other one that we had a better car at that point. But that's what's fun. It's fun to race Jeff. I mean, when you have a day like we had last year at The Glen and the laps that we were ahead of Jeff we could drive away from him a little bit -- it makes you feel good, and you know you're outrunning the best that's been. Any time that you can run with Jeff like that, you have the confidence to race with him. We never had any close moments with each other that day. We raced each other with respect and that's what makes racing with Jeff fun. You know that when you outrun Jeff that you did an excellent job. You're not going to back into a win with Jeff out there.
"There's mutual respect. There's more to this racing thing than just winning races and trophies and prize money. There's a day we all quit driving and it's about the relationships you make along the way, and you're going to have battles and rivalries with guys that are strong competitors with you, and you know, that's to be expected. But at the same time, there's a huge admiration and respect when you race guys like that, too. I think we both realize that."
People always seem to make a big deal out of the road course "ringers" that tend to show up at the two road course races on the Sprint Cup schedule. But after over two straight decades of road course racing in NASCAR -- and you specifically having nine years of road course racing in NASCAR -- is there such a thing anymore as a road course ringer?
"No, not at all. You look at guys who have run really well on the road courses the last couple of years and it's Jeff Gordon, myself and Kevin Harvick. There hasn't been a road course ringer to win a race yet, so I don't know why everybody uses that in the equation other than it gives them something different to write about. You still have to beat the same guys that have been winning, and all you have to do is look at the stats and the stats will tell you who you've got to beat there."
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 (Va.) 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 90 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."