Stewart heads for Darlington

CHARLOTTE, N.C., (Aug. 29, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the ...

CHARLOTTE, N.C., (Aug. 29, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, is a perfect match for the venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. The 1.366-mile oval is known as "The Track Too Tough to Tame," a moniker that could apply to the hard-charging Stewart.

Stewart has three wins on the season and is second only to Rusty Wallace for the most victories this year. Hungry for their fourth win, Stewart and Co. tested at Darlington on Tuesday following the last Michigan race.

With a fourth-place finish in this year's spring event and an average finish of seventh in his three career starts at Darlington, Stewart is poised to score his first win in a 500-mile race at the Pepsi Southern 500.

Is there any substitute for experience at Darlington?

"It's one of those tracks that's so hard on tires that anytime you go there you've got to keep trying to find something that makes the tires live longer. I keep learning new things every time I go there. I think we learned more this time when we tested. We learned a lot about shocks, and I learned a lot as a driver trying some different things on the track. Hopefully, those are all things that will add up and make The Home Depot team just a little bit better when we unload for the race."

The new tire that Goodyear is bringing to Darlington is supposed to last longer but not have as much grip. After making 365 laps during your test there, what are your thoughts on the new tire?

"I think it's going to make the drivers more important and it's going to make the setups more important. The tires do have a little less grip and I think that was done in an effort to try to make 'em live longer. Right now, that's the tire we're running and we've just got to do what we can to make the thing as consistent and durable as possible."

Car management is key at Darlington. Because of that, do you feel that Darlington is a track where you excel?

"I hope it will be. We're kind of in a situation there where we don't really know how everyone else is going to be when they get there. But it seems like when we do get into a car management type situation we're fairly decent. I'm hoping that will play to our favor."

How important is a win in the Pepsi Southern 500?

"I've learned a lot about the history of Winston Cup racing and NASCAR and I know how important the Southern 500 is to a lot of people. I understand how big of a race it really is. It's one of the few that you can put in that kind of a category - a race that everybody wants to win. It's not the Daytona 500 and it's not the Brickyard 400, but it ranks right up there with the Coca-Cola 600. It's just one of the more important races of the year and it's at one of the toughest places of the year."

You have yet to win a 500-mile race. Does Darlington present your best opportunity to do so?

"I'd say it's a possibility. It's too hard to predict what the scenarios are going to be and how everything's going to work out, but I hope that this is one race that we can win because of its history. It's a really important race for me."

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."

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're able to run?

"Just depending on what your 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, #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix crew chief:

How did your test go at Darlington?

"It went all right. The track conditions were really similar to what they'll probably be when we go back - hot and sunny. Goodyear brought a new tire that didn't seem to have as much grip but it's supposed to last a little longer. So, we had to work on the car to where it drove good and the balance was good. It was pretty difficult with the tire as hard as it was and with the weather as hot as it was. But, we felt like we left there on a fairly high note."

Will the tire last longer during a run and not go away as fast as what we're used to seeing at Darlington?

"That's what the goal is. We didn't see that it lasted much longer as far as speed was concerned. It had less grip and the wear wasn't as bad. It seemed like it worked a little bit, but we gave up a bunch of grip. It was a little frustrating at times."

Even with the new tire compound, will you approach Darlington any differently than you have in the past?

"You just have to race the race track. You won't be racing anybody all day. It may be worse than in year's past because the tire has less grip and the driver has a lot less confidence in his car being stuck to the race track. So, I don't know what the race will be like. There will be four or five cars like normal that I'm sure will be good that'll swap position throughout a run. Some will be better at the front and some will be better at the back. That'll probably be it."

You tested at Darlington before the fall race and again before the Pepsi Southern 500. Why?

"We went to Darlington last spring and ran really well. It was rain-shortened and we finished sixth, but we ran third or fourth. We went back in the fall, and basically, were out to lunch. We struggled. It was hot. The track was slick. That's what so different about Darlington. A lot of that is from a driver having laps on the track and confidence in his abilities at Darlington. So, we went back and burned another test for that reason, and because they changed the tire. So, testing was a plus. And we're looking at going back there and running in the top-five all day. That's what our goal is. Tony learned a ton just going there and running the 365 laps that we ran. He learned a lot about the race track and where to run. His runs became more consistent at the end of the day than they were when we first got there. Even if we didn't learn anything, I think it was a very positive test just because Tony got more laps at that race track."

How is it managing Tony at Darlington?

"Sometimes it's very difficult. Sometimes it's very easy. He seems to do well at Darlington. If we're good at Darlington and we run well like we did in the spring, he does a great job. Last fall he got frustrated really easily, and in times like that it's really hard to get him focused again. I think it all depends on how The Home Depot Pontiac is and how our pit stops go - all of those things kind of dictate how confident the driver is all day long. That's a big part of it."

How do you balance managing the race car and Tony at the same time?

"You just do what you can. It's your job. Sometimes it works and you have good days at it and sometimes you feel like you didn't do enough at it. That's all part of the sport. It's what makes this sport interesting. It takes everybody - guys over the wall, guys behind the wall, me making decisions, Tony making the right decisions. It's truly a team effort."

<pre> TONY STEWART'S DARLINGTON PERFORMANCE PROFILE Year Event Start Finish Status/Laps Earnings 2000 Mall.com 400 9 4 Running/293 $68,230 1999 TranSouth Financial 400 10 6 Running/164 $44,240 Pepsi Southern 500 19 12 Running/270 $46,620

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Harry Gant