ATLANTA (July 24, 2001) - It wasn't that long ago when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series first visited Pocono (Pa.) Raceway this season. In fact, just four races have passed since the series stopped at the triangular 2.5-mile facility June 15-17, ...
ATLANTA (July 24, 2001) - It wasn't that long ago when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series first visited Pocono (Pa.) Raceway this season. In fact, just four races have passed since the series stopped at the triangular 2.5-mile facility June 15-17, giving Pocono the unique distinction of having the quickest turnaround time of any venue on the Winston Cup circuit.
During that span, Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team have ridden a roller-coaster of emotion. They won their first road course race at Sears Point (Sonoma, Calif.) a week after finishing seventh in the Pocono 500. But a week later at Daytona (Fla.), their sixth-place finish turned into a 26th place finish when NASCAR penalized the team for failing to heed the black flag as a result of passing below the yellow line. NASCAR's decision to score the #20 Home Depot Pontiac as the last car on the lead lap of the Pepsi 400 meant a loss of 65 championship points, wounding the team in their bid for the 2001 Winston Cup title.
Salt was poured into those wounds the next weekend at Joliet (Ill.), when in the inaugural Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, a top-10 effort by Stewart ended in a late race crash. Stewart's car got loose coming out of turn two on lap 257, and he cracked the throttle just a hair in an attempt to regain control. But the Dodge of Sterling Marlin was right on Stewart's bumper, and in the split-second that Stewart fought to regain control, Marlin made contact with Stewart. The result was a spin into the inside retaining wall and a 33rd place finish, dropping Stewart from fourth to sixth in the championship point standings.
Stewart and Co. rebounded well at New Hampshire, however, finishing fifth for their 10th top-10 of the season. The orange and white Joe Gibbs Racing team regained their fourth-place point standing, 274 markers outside of leaders Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon. The #20 team looks to carry that momentum into Pocono for this weekend's Pennsylvania 500, the site of Stewart's third career pole.
Sears Point and New Hampshire aside, do you feel that you kind of lost your stride since you last came to Pocono?
"No, not at all. We won Sonoma and then we finished sixth at Daytona, or should've finished sixth. I think everyone knows where I stand on Daytona, so I'll just leave it at that. Then we were running ninth at Chicago and we wreck with 10 laps to go. That's not a rut. That's just bad luck. We rebounded pretty well at New Hampshire - a track where we always seem to run well at anyway. Now if we were actually running 26th at Daytona or 33rd at Chicago, then yeah, we'd be a lot more frustrated. But we're not. We're running up front, where we should be. That fact that we haven't always ended up there was due to some circumstances that we couldn't control."
With more than half the season behind you, do you feel that you have a better handle on the new tire compounds that Goodyear introduced this year as you head into the second half of the season?
"We're still trying to learn the new compounds and work with them. It's nothing that gets easier each week, by any means. It's just different. We went to Loudon (N.H.) and they put down a fresh sealer, and that was another variable we were forced to deal with. It's really frustrating for teams and drivers when every week there's something that's being changed. Whether it's the track surface or tires or rules packages or whatever, with all the seemingly constant change you feel like you're chasing your tail. But it's been getting used to the new tires more than anything that we've struggled with this year. It's hard enough trying to figure out the tires when on top of that the rules change on you. It's just a never-ending battle of playing 'catch-up.'"
Does the second half of the season provide a reprieve of sorts from all the changes you've faced this year, as you're returning to many of the tracks that you've raced on earlier this year?
"Not really. Last weekend we were at Loudon and that was the first time we had been there this season. We still haven't gone to Indy, Watkins Glen (N.Y), Kansas City (Kan.), Phoenix and Homestead (Fla.), so I'm sure we'll face some challenges there as well. There are still a bunch of tracks we haven't been to yet or haven't had an opportunity to run much. So, just because we've got a half season behind us doesn't necessarily mean we're more prepared than we were back in February or March."
Pocono has a lot of flat track characteristics along with some characteristics all its own. Is it a place that suits your driving style, considering your success at such flat tracks as Richmond (Va.), Homestead and Phoenix?
"I like it because it has three corners and they're all different. All three have different personalities. If you get the car good in one corner, then sometimes it's bad in one of the others, and yet tolerable somewhere else. The challenge is getting The Home Depot Pontiac to handle through all three corners all day."
Explain a lap around Pocono.
"Turn one is probably the easiest of the three, but you've got the challenge of having to downshift in the middle of the corner. You go down the backstretch and into the tunnel turn and it's basically one lane. It's flat and very line-sensitive. You've got to make sure you're right on your marks every lap when you go through there. Then you've got a short chute into turn three. It's a big, long corner and it too is very line-sensitive. With it being line-sensitive and the fact that we've got a straightaway that's three-quarters of a mile long after that, it's very important that you get through the last corner well. You need to come off the corner quickly so that you're not bogged down when you start down that long straightaway. Each corner has its challenges, and each one tends to present a different set of circumstances with each lap you make."
Coming down that front straightaway, the racing can get pretty wide. When and where do you have to get back in line to make it into that first corner?
"It just kind of funnels itself back into line before we get into (turn) one. Everybody tries to get back on the high side to make their entry into the corner, but sometimes it does get a little tight in there. But most times, you just do what you have to do to get back in line."
What's the most treacherous part of Pocono's layout?
"Probably the tunnel turn. Everybody realizes how fast they're going into (turn) one. And they know that if they wreck they're going to wreck hard. The tunnel turn is a little sneaky. It's a tight fit through there, and you don't really know how fast you're going until something bad happens."