Tony Stewart Talladega - One Year Later ATLANTA (Sept. 23, 2003) - In the fall of 2002, Tony Stewart left Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point leader. He came into the fourth and final restrictor plate race of...
Talladega - One Year Later
ATLANTA (Sept. 23, 2003) - In the fall of 2002, Tony Stewart left Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point leader. He came into the fourth and final restrictor plate race of the season trailing series leader Jimmie Johnson by 36 points, but thanks to a strong second-place finish to Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart left the EA SPORTS 500 with a 72-point advantage that no one was able to overcome.
In the fall of 2003, Stewart enters Talladega 10th in the championship point standings, 867 markers behind series leader Matt Kenseth and 287 points behind fifth-place Ryan Newman. Much has changed in the almost 12 months since last year's EA SPORTS 500 at the 2.66-mile oval - Joe Gibbs Racing switched from Pontiac to Chevrolet, NASCAR implemented new rules and regulations and Winston announced it exodus as title sponsor - but one element that did not change was The Home Depot Racing Team's resolve.
With eight races remaining, Stewart and Co. are committed as ever to winning. Their lone victory at Pocono (Pa.) in June was great, but for a team that has won at least three races in each of the four years they've been in Winston Cup, it hasn't been enough.
While no wins have been recorded at Talladega, it has proven to be Stewart's better restrictor plate venue when compared to Daytona (Fla.) - the only other restrictor plate venue on the circuit. The Home Depot Chevrolet driver has three second-place restrictor plate finishes, and they've all come at Talladega. And of the 56 laps Stewart has led in the 19 restrictor plate races he has run, 49 of them have been at Talladega.
For The Home Depot Racing Team, Talladega represents more than just a race. It represents another opportunity to win.
A year ago at Talladega you took the point lead and never looked back. While the 2003 season hasn't worked out as well as you would've liked, what is your mindset for the final eight races?
"We're taking it one week at a time, just trying to win races. This Home Depot team is just trying to win each week, and whatever it gives us, it gives us. I'll be kind of glad when this year is over, but it has made me appreciate last season even more from a performance standpoint - being able to rally back and win the points like we did - that was pretty impressive."
NASCAR opened up the restrictor plate while increasing a car's drag by heightening the rear spoiler for this weekend's event at Talladega, all in an effort to increase throttle response. Is that something that will benefit restrictor plate racing?
"I just want them to come up with something that keeps us from having to run three-wide all day long. But the only way to find out ways to do that is to try different things. I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens during the race."
NASCAR continues to adjust the formula for restrictor plate racing. While not perfect, do you appreciate the efforts they're putting forth?
"Absolutely. You've got to try stuff to see what works and what doesn't. I applaud NASCAR for at least making the effort to try and make things a little bit different than what they were, while at the same time, keeping the racing exciting for the fans."
NASCAR recently approved an escape hatch via the roof of Winston Cup cars. What are your thoughts on that?
"It's great, especially with the way the headrests are these days to protect you in case of an impact. They're big and bulky, and if you had to get out of the race car in a hurry because of fire, it was making it increasingly difficult, especially if you were penned in with the left side of the car against the wall to where you couldn't get out that way. Now we have another escape - another way to get out of the vehicle. There are a lot of good things happening in NASCAR right now."
NASCAR announced that there will be no more racing back to the caution. Is that something that's been long overdue, or do you look at it as if you ever get a lap down, it's going to be very hard to get that lap back?
"I think it's a really good thing. It's something this sport has needed for a long time. I applaud what NASCAR is doing, and not only did they take care of racing back to the yellow, but their new pit lane rule, where there's no passing to the inside of cars, should make it safer for the pit crews. And not racing back to the yellow makes it safer for fellow competitors when they have an accident. This way, depending on where they are on the race track, we don't have to worry about hitting them. It's been long overdue, and I give NASCAR a standing ovation.
"Not being able to get a lap back is a lot less harsh than causing serious injury to somebody by hitting them while trying to get a lap back. I'd say the reward of helping save a competitor's life is much greater than the loss of a lap."
Will you be hunting or fishing in Alabama during the days leading up to the EA SPORTS 500?
"We'll be strictly fishing this time of year."
Will Red Farmer be with you? What do you guys talk about when you're out on a boat fishing in the middle of nowhere?
"Absolutely, Red will be with me. The one thing we don't talk about is race cars. It's not even something we talk about not talking about. We just know when we go out there, that we're there to fish and enjoy the outdoors. Neither one of us wants to talk about race cars."
(Red Farmer is one of the last members of the legendary Alabama Gang, and at 60-plus years, is perhaps the oldest race car driver anywhere. Some of Farmer's most notable accomplishments are the three consecutive NASCAR Busch Series championships he earned in 1969, 1970 and 1971, as well as his over 730 wins garnered in various forms of motorsports. Farmer has spent more than 50 years behind the wheel of a race car, and this year is no different, as he'll have competed in 20-30 races upon the conclusion of the 2003 season. But when Farmer isn't racing, he's enjoying the outdoors, a hobby which has rubbed off on Stewart. - Ed.)
Hunting and fishing in Alabama the week of the Talladega race seems to have become a ritual of sorts. Is that true?
"It's a good release. It's like hitting a reset button. And Red's a lot of fun. I feel like I've been very fortunate to be able to spend that kind of personal time with Red Farmer knowing how big of an influence he's had on NASCAR racing and short track racing, and especially the whole state of Alabama. It's been a great honor just to be able to spend that kind of time with him."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
NASCAR recently approved an escape hatch via the roof of Winston Cup cars. Will the car you bring to Talladega employ an escape hatch?
"We won't have it in for Talladega. We're going to do some testing with it before we race it. It looks like we finally have a system that'll work pretty well. It's a good idea, but we just want to make sure it doesn't cause us any problems. It's important to do all we can to protect our driver and make it easier for him to get out of the race car, but there hasn't been a whole lot of testing done with the escape hatch. We're waiting on an escape hatch now, and when we get it we'll fit to a car and see what it entails."
What is the process involved with taking a race car and retro-fitting it with a roof escape hatch?
"We haven't done it yet, so I don't really know the extent of work that needs to go into it. It won't be hard to do. It's just a matter of implementing it into your program and getting it to fit right."
Is there some trepidation with cutting a hole in a perfectly good roof to install the escape hatch?
"Yeah, there is some concern over a lot of little things. You can always put another roof on the car if something happens, but it's just a matter of getting it right, especially when you're dealing with a superspeedway car, considering how finicky they are. We'll just have to wait and see while we do our homework on it."
NASCAR announced that there would be no more racing back to the caution. Is that something that's been long overdue, or do you look at it as if you ever get a lap down, it's going to be very hard to get that lap back?
"You're just going to have to out-race the leader to get your lap back. Everybody's been complaining about it, so it's like everything else, they're (NASCAR) going to do something about it. And they did. I'm not sure I want to say it's been unsafe doing what we've been doing, because for a lot of years we haven't had a problem. But there were also a lot of other people who respected each other. There were some gentlemen out there. Problem is, nobody respects anybody anymore, and that's where the issue lies."