ATLANTA (March 12, 2001) - In four career NASCAR Winston Cup Series starts at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, Tony Stewart has three top-10 finishes. In fact, The Home Depot pilot's average finish at the 1.366-mile oval is eighth, with his worst ...
ATLANTA (March 12, 2001) - In four career NASCAR Winston Cup Series starts at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, Tony Stewart has three top-10 finishes. In fact, The Home Depot pilot's average finish at the 1.366-mile oval is eighth, with his worst finish being a 12th place run in the 1999 Southern 500. Despite the strong finishing numbers, one statistical category remains dormant - laps led.
Running well at Darlington satisfied the Greg Zipadelli-led Home Depot Racing Team initially. But upon entering their third Winston Cup season with nine wins and four poles to their credit, Stewart and Co. running well on a race track is a given.
To stay motivated, the team's universal goal is to always be better at a particular race track than they were the last time they visited that track. If the team finished 10th at a race last year, they'll expect to finish fifth when they return to that race this year. As such, the team's Darlington performance record has been a bone of contention.
Seeking to address their Darlington dilemma, Zipadelli scheduled a test at the venerable oval on Tuesday and Wednesday following the Las Vegas race weekend. It marked the team's third Darlington test in the past 12 months.
TONY STEWART, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac:
How did your test at Darlington go and what did you work on?
"Darlington is one of those tracks where we feel like we still don't have a handle on where we need to be. We run decent, but we're just a step away from having a really good car there. We tested so that we could find a couple of things here and there that will make us run in the top-five consistently at Darlington."
Is Darlington a frustrating track for you, in that you run well - top-10 - but not as well as you'd like?
"No, because there are a lot of teams that aren't at the level that we are at Darlington. It's just one of those deals where the only way you're going to find a way to make yourself better is to go there and test and do your homework. We've tested The Home Depot Pontiac there ever year, because we feel like it's an important track. It takes a lot to get around that place consistently and fast all day. With the new tire, we felt like Darlington was one of those tracks where we had to go to work."
The tire is slightly different than it was in last year's fall race at Darlington - same compound, different construction. Did you notice a significant difference?
"It definitely changed the handling a little bit, but that's why we tested. We were able to eliminate a lot of time that we would've had to take during the race weekend to figure out the new tire. Once we get to Darlington, we've got a pretty good baseline setup to start off the weekend."
In relation to tire management, do you take the same approach as you would at Rockingham (N.C.)?
"Very similar, but it's probably harder at Darlington. Part of it is Darlington's layout. That, and there's usually two or three really good cars that hit on the perfect setup, and they force you to run harder than what you would really rather run."
Is Darlington the one track on the Winston Cup circuit where you feel you have to work the hardest?
"It's one of the tracks where we seem to work the hardest. The way the tires fall off there and as narrow as the track is - it's hard to pass. So, you've got to get your car driving well to be able to pass. You don't want to use up your tires too early in a run. It's definitely one of the harder tracks on the circuit, but there are a lot of hard tracks on our schedule."
It's been said that Darlington is a driver's track. Why is that?
"The way the tires fall off and the way that you have to change your driving style to compensate for what the tires lack at the end of a run. You've got to change your driving style each lap - change where you're lifting, how much you're braking, how much you're on the throttle. It all changes constantly every lap."
Harry Gant was known to run a high line around Darlington. Are there different lines that you can run at Darlington?
"Just depending on what you're car is doing you can run different lines. Some guys from the beginning of a run will race right up against the wall just because that's where their car feels good. It's not so much as the run goes on that you get closer to the wall, it's more dependent on how your car is handling. For instance, my Home Depot Pontiac may start up there, but there might be another guy who starts his run at the bottom of the track."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac:
You've tested a lot at Darlington in the three years this team has been in existence. Why so much?
"We've run well there. We've gotten a couple of top-10s, and had some opportunities, such as last spring where we could've had a second or maybe even a win, but our last pit stop kept us from that. Darlington's just one of those places that if you go there and you're not fully prepared, you can run terribly. I don't know what it is about that place. But I think Tony's the type of driver that once we do figure it out, Darlington is a place where we can go there and win and run with guys like Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon - guys that just seem to dominate that place. We're just trying to get better there. And I think what we learned there can be used at other places - Rockingham seems pretty similar. I just want to conquer that place."
Is Darlington one of those tracks on the circuit where you've said, 'We're good, but not good enough?'
"We haven't mastered it, but we've run okay there. The place is still intimidating. I think it intimidates everyone every time we go there. Testing there is kind of a confidence booster for us. When we unload we'll probably have the car outfitted with a very detailed qualifying trim, because we feel our race setup will be okay. With the limited number of practices that we're getting, and with the way the performance of the tires drop off at Darlington, it's really hard to learn things if you're not really good right from the time you unload. You get two runs on a set of tires, and after that you don't know what you did. So, if you unload and you're not very good, it's pretty hard to get back on track."
Is Darlington a harder track to get a hold of now that it's only a two-day show?
"It is because you don't have a race practice in the morning on Saturday, which used to give you a couple of hours to think about your car and change all the stuff you wanted to change before you got another hour of practice at the end of the day. Now we have either an hour or an hour and a half of straight practice (on Saturday morning) that's devoted to qualifying only. We qualify, then we have our final practice right after the Busch race that same afternoon. And that's it. You don't get anywhere near the time to stop and think about what direction you went. You find yourself throwing a bunch of ideas at the car trying to find a cure for what's going on. Once that final practice is over, it's over. You wind up sorting out what you want to change and what you want to leave alone for the race."
In your most recent Darlington test, did the tires wear and handle like you expected them to, or did they perform totally differently than you expected?
"It's the same tire that we used at Darlington in the fall. It just has a different construction and size. It's the same tire that's used at Rockingham, Bristol (Tenn.) and Vegas. So, a lot of our notes from last year are still usable. It hasn't changed that much. The only difference is that the tires don't turn as well as Tony would like them to. So, we'll work in that direction. We still saw the same kind of tire wear that we've always seen at Darlington. That place is no better than it ever was. It still chews up tires."
<pre> TONY STEWART'S DARLINGTON PERFORMANCE PROFILE Year Event Start Finish Status/Laps Laps Led Earnings 2000 Mall.com 400 9 4 Running/293 0 $68,230 Pepsi Southern 500 29 9 Running/328 0 $55,735 1999 TranSouth Financial 400 10 6 Running/164 0 $44,240 Pepsi Southern 500 19 12 Running/270 0 $46,620