Tony Stewart Poignant performance at Sears Point. ATLANTA (June 18, 2002) - Tony Stewart's proficiency on oval race tracks is well known, as 13 of his 14 career NASCAR Winston Cup Series victories have come on ovals. It should also be noted...
Poignant performance at Sears Point.
ATLANTA (June 18, 2002) - Tony Stewart's proficiency on oval race tracks is well known, as 13 of his 14 career NASCAR Winston Cup Series victories have come on ovals. It should also be noted that his 1997 Indy Racing League championship and his 1995 titles in the USAC National Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown divisions were also decided on ovals.
But when the Winston Cup Series descended upon the twists and turns of Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., last June for the first road course race of 2001, it was Stewart who wound up in victory lane. Apparently, he was just as adept at turning right as he was at turning left.
Those who had followed Stewart since his rookie year in 1999 weren't too surprised. After all, coming into Sears Point Stewart had never qualified less than sixth and had finished no worse than 15th in four career road course starts. His third-place qualifying effort and the resulting win in Sonoma only added to Stewart's impressive road course resume.
Now the driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac returns to Sears Point a year later as the defending race winner. And thanks to that win, Stewart is now void of the relative obscurity he enjoyed at road courses, making him a favorite to repeat in the Dodge/Save Mart 350k.
You tested the Tuesday preceding Pocono (Pa.) at the 3.27-mile Virginia International Raceway (VIR) road course. How did that test go and what did you work on?
"I think it went really well. We ran faster than what we ran last year when we tested there, and the tire that we had this year was a little bit harder. I think that's a good sign. I think there were some areas were we could've been even faster if we were in a race situation. But considering it was just a test, we weren't all that concerned with setting fast time. We were there to learn. It was definitely a productive test and we're looking forward to taking The Home Depot Pontiac to Sonoma."
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 Sears Point. And it kind of simulates going into turn one at Watkins Glen (N.Y.). 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.
"It seems to be a really good place for the Cup teams to go and shake cars down, while at the same time trying to work on some problems that they may have."
While the team is busy testing new brake setups and suspension pieces, are you testing yourself as to where to place your feet on the pedals and where and when you make your gear selections?
"It's more just the standard testing we would do anywhere. It's brakes and chassis setups - trying to make the car driver better."
Road courses seem to bring out the road course ringers. How much of a presence is made by the road course specialists some teams select to drive their race cars?
"You definitely know they're there. But if they really want to impress me they can come to Richmond or Bristol (Tenn.) and show me what they can do there. To come in and cherry-pick an event is one thing, but let's see what they can do at another NASCAR event."
Your performance on the road courses has always been good, even during your rookie year. How were you able to adapt to road course 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 Sears Point 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."
How do you think your crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, adapted so quickly to the road courses in terms of finding the proper chassis setup?
"Well, he's run in the Busch North Series a bunch and run the Modifieds, and both of those divisions have to run at Watkins Glen. He's got some experience from both of those divisions. Obviously, he's been with a Cup team (Roush Racing, #99) in the past that's run road courses. He's got a really good ability to adapt quickly, like I do in some cases behind the wheel. I'm just fortunate to have a guy like that who can adapt so quickly to different styles of racing."
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, 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 last year at Sonoma. We've run well at Watkins Glen, for the most part, every year we've been there. 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's 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 on Sunday. I enjoy it. To me, it's kind of a nice change of pace. It's nice to do something different twice a year."
Do you feel that, as a NASCAR driver, you're more well-rounded than drivers in other series?
"I don't know. There are a lot of guys who are in the Cup Series who came from different forms of motorsports or have driven different divisions in the past. They've all probably road raced at some point in their careers. You look at Jerry Nadeau, he's got a good road racing background. There are a lot of guys who have driven road races before they got here. So, I don't think I'm any better than anyone else."