Tony Stewart Championship Charge Culminated at Talladega ATLANTA (Sept. 28, 2004) - 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...
Championship Charge Culminated at Talladega
ATLANTA (Sept. 28, 2004) - 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.
Two years later, Stewart enters the fall Talladega race ninth in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship point standings, 135 markers behind new series leader Jeff Gordon. Much has changed since the 2002 EA SPORTS 500 at the 2.66-mile oval, but one element that has not is The Home Depot Racing driver's resolve.
In his 11 previous races at Talladega, Stewart has finished in the top-five six times, three of which were second-place finishes. Stewart has won a points-paying race on nearly every type of race track the circuit offers - short tracks, intermediate tracks, road courses - but never on a restrictor plate track. Talladega has proven to be Stewart's better restrictor plate venue when compared to Daytona (Fla.) - the only other restrictor plate track on the circuit - as it has yielded only one second-place result and two other top-fives.
With just eight races remaining in this year's Chase for the Championship, winning is all that matters. That's especially true for Stewart, who knows that wins are the only way to earn the points necessary to compete for this year's title.
"My philosophy in my 25 years of racing has been that if you win races then the points take care of themselves," said Stewart. "The higher you finish the more points you get. It's a pretty simple theory."
For The Home Depot Racing Team, Talladega represents more than just a race. It represents another opportunity to win.
How much of a crapshoot is Talladega, especially now with the tightened points format for those of you in the top-10?
"The race just carries more variables that are out of your control than any other race. When they have crashes at Talladega, the number of people caught up is normally pretty large. That's kind of why we view Talladega as a wild card race. You can't really predict anything. It's not as easy as saying, 'These guys run well here.' Guys who don't run well at Talladega could be contenders to win the race if the right circumstances happen. It's one of those scenarios where the guys in the top-10 are really going to be careful, but they're still going to have to race hard to gain as many points as they can."
In this year's restrictor plate races you've seemed to struggle in practice and qualifying, but when it comes time for the race, you're a team to beat. What's going on?
"In the race you have all 43 cars out there at the same time. That's the biggest thing. If our car isn't right I'll wrestle it around the whole day if I have to. I feel like I'm pretty good about knowing when to pick the right holes and where to go and when to go. The pit crew has been a big part of that too. The pit crew always has good pit stops at Daytona and Talladega and that gets us out to help us in those scenarios at the end of the race and get us in a position to where I can go up there and do my job at that point."
You've been a threat to win at every one of the restrictor plate races this year. How do you see your chances at Talladega?
"I'm not sure I'd call ourselves a favorite, but I think all you have to do is look at our record and you can probably tell where we're going to be. We're pretty consistent about where we end up at Talladega."
Is there strategy involved in a restrictor plate race, or is it just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented?
"The strategy is making sure you've got somebody you can draft with. You have to take the opportunities as they come, but with those opportunities you have to make a very quick decision. You've got to think, 'What happens if I try this and it doesn't work? What are the ramifications going to be?' You don't have the luxury of sitting down and taking the time to analyze the situation. You've got to make a split-second decision. A lot of times it'll work, but there are times when the decision that you made doesn't work. But once you've committed yourself to doing something there's not much you can do about it."
After Rusty Wallace ran 228 mph in an unofficial test in June at Talladega using an unrestricted engine, would you be in favor of removing the restrictor plates from engines for future races at Daytona and Talladega?
"Absolutely, I'd be the first one to jump out there. It would bring the driver back into it. Instead of teams working so hard to build cars that are slick, they could try to build cars that actually handle again. There's always talk about why we get into these big crashes and it's because there's 40 of us running in one big pack, and we're so close together you could throw a blanket over us. If you had cars running in the 215 to 220 mph bracket, you wouldn't be able to run that close to each other because you'd have to move around on the race track to find clean air. We wouldn't be able to stay down on the bottom of the track. We'd have to drive around like we do at Michigan and find places on the track where our car drives better. I think it would make for exciting racing to be able to do that again."
With all of the rule changes regarding restrictor plate racing in the last couple of years, how much control does a driver actually have in today's restrictor plate racing environment?
"I feel like after hearing what Rusty (Wallace) ran at Talladega that we don't even need restrictor plates. It's still not real racing when somebody else has to go with you and somebody else can dictate how you run. If you don't ever have anybody go with you all day you never have a shot at winning. But if you have guys go with you, you have a shot. To me, restrictor plate racing is still not real racing."
What's the difference between racing at Talladega and Daytona?
"You can run two- and three-wide all day at Daytona. At Talladega you can run three-wide all day easily, and sometimes four-wide. Essentially, Talladega just has an extra lane compared to Daytona, because its track is a little easier to get a hold of mechanically. Handling isn't near as big of an issue as it is at Daytona. Talladega is just about speed, and finding more of it. It's bigger, so its corners are a little bit bigger, which is why handling doesn't seem to be quite as much of an issue."
Is a fast car all you need to be successful in restrictor plate races?
"You have to have a fast car. But with that fast car, you've got to have a good team that gets you in and out of the pits fast, and you've got to have a driver who knows what he's doing. Get all that together, along with a little bit of luck, and you can have a good day."
Patience is an obvious virtue on the short tracks, but how important is it at a restrictor plate track?
"It's the gospel, basically. There are a lot of times when you think you can pull out and pass, but if you do, once you get there you realize that you can't pass. It makes it real critical that you take your time and that you don't get caught up in trying to make a move too fast. Just stay in line, and sometimes you'll have more patience than 20 other guys."
Can you describe the relationship you and Dale Earnhardt Jr., have at restrictor plate tracks and how it all began?
"I don't think there are other drivers who communicate about stuff like we do. We talk about what gears we're running and how each of our cars are driving and where on the race track we want to be with our race cars. I don't think there's too many of the other drivers who actually do that with each other.
"We both know that we run really well together. I guess to a certain degree we're unofficial teammates. My teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing - Bobby Labonte - when we're able to run together we typically run well. I think Bobby's philosophy on running together is different than Junior's and mine. Basically, you just find guys you're comfortable running with, and I'm very comfortable running with Bobby whenever I can. But it seems like Junior and I somehow always find each other and get with each other and have the confidence in one another to know that whoever's leading, that the guy behind him knows that if the guy in front makes a move, the guy in second is going to go with him. When you have the pairing that Junior and I have, we trust each other and it gives us a level of confidence that not too many drivers have found with other drivers. He's real comfortable with me and I'm real comfortable with him. Our view is that if we get together then we can go by everybody. As long as we end up getting grouped together, we always get back to the front - no matter what.
"As far as getting together at the restrictor plate tracks, it probably started about three years ago during Daytona Speedweeks. It seemed like every time we went out on the track we were around each other. A lot of our theories on how to run restrictor plate races are very similar. When you run with each other as much as we did, we kind of got a respect and a trust with each other. He knows that when I'm behind him that if he goes somewhere - whether it's right or wrong - I'm going to go with him. And he's the same with me."