Talladega II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Remember Daytona ATLANTA (Sept. 26, 2005) - With the exception of Tony Stewart and the ...

TONY STEWART
Remember Daytona

ATLANTA (Sept. 26, 2005) - With the exception of Tony Stewart and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team, the July 2 Pepsi 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway is one many would like to forget. Thanks to persistent rains that delayed the race for nearly three hours, the checkered flag didn't drop until 1:45 a.m. on July 3.

But it wasn't just the long night that made many drivers, crew chiefs and crew members bleary-eyed. It was Stewart's incredibly dominating performance.

He started from the pole and led all but nine of the race's 160 laps. No one else had a chance.

The same car Stewart used to win at Daytona for his first career point-paying restrictor plate victory is the same car that Stewart will use in this Sunday's UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

If one isn't wearing orange and black, be afraid, be very afraid.

The July Daytona win was the culmination of what has been a strong restrictor plate effort from Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing outfit. The #20 team announced their restrictor plate prowess with a win in the non-points Gatorade Duel at Daytona - the February qualifying race that set the field for the season-opening Daytona 500. In the 500, Stewart led seven times for 107 laps - nearly triple the amount of laps led by anyone else - before being shuffled out of the lead to finish seventh. And in the second plate race of the season at Talladega in May, Stewart finished second.

That runner-up finish to race victor Jeff Gordon was pivotal for Stewart and Co., for in the three races that led into Talladega, Stewart had finished outside of the top-25 to drop to 14th in points. Stewart's stretch of 51 weeks amongst the top-10 was over, and a strong finish at Talladega was sorely needed.

The second-place result catapulted Stewart to sixth in points, and in the 19 races since, there's been no looking back. With five wins, 11 top-fives, 15 top-10s and two poles, Stewart ascended to the points lead. The only recent hiccup came last Sunday at Dover (Del.), where an uncharacteristic 18th place finish dropped Stewart to fifth in the standings, 23 points arrears new series leader Jimmie Johnson.

But as the final restrictor plate race of the season looms with Talladega, Stewart is confident he'll regain his perch atop the points.

That's because of the 557 laps available in the first three restrictor plates - 203 laps in the Daytona 500, 194 laps at Talladega in May and 160 laps at Daytona in July - Stewart has led 260 of those laps (46.7 percent). And in those three races, Stewart's finishes of seventh, second and first, respectively, has given him an average finish of third.

With eight races to go, a championship on the line and another restrictor plate trophy to be had, Stewart looks to Talladega with the memory of Daytona fresh on his mind.

It seems you've had up-and-down starts to all of your Nextel Cup seasons, but you always seem able to turn your fortunes around. Is there any particular reason why?

"It just seems that, historically, we normally have a slow start to the season when the tracks are cooler and have a lot more grip. It seems like when we get into May, June, and July that we really hit our stride. That's when it starts getting warmer and the tracks get slicker and it's harder to find grip on the race track. That's the point of the season where we really start gaining momentum. Then once we get that momentum, we tend to keep it right through the end of the season."

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."

Is there any strategy involved in running 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."

Do you enjoy racing at Talladega?

"You can say the track hasn't been kind to me with as many second place finishes as we've had, but there's 41 guys who didn't have it as good as we had it those days. There have been a lot of days where we ran second and it was as good as a win for us. The spring race was a perfect example. We knew we didn't have the best car, but we ended up with a second-place finish. That was the best we could do and we left the track with smiles on our faces.

"The Talladega weeks are always fun weeks for me because I go fishing and it's a week where I don't turn my cell phone on and I don't worry about the race car. It's just a week to kind of hit the reset button, and by the time I get to the track, I'm fresh and ready to go. I always have fun when I come to Talladega."

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."

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?

"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."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:

After the Daytona win, your driver politicked pretty hard to save that car for next year's Daytona 500 and not bring it to Talladega. Is it safe to say you won that debate?

"There was no debate. What Tony failed to realize was that when we go back to Daytona this spring, the Monte Carlo has a body change. That car will have a new tail, nose, hood and the rear C-post template will have also changed. It would do us no good to keep that car under wraps other than to save the chassis. We know it's a really good chassis and the underbody of that car is good, but we have no intentions of going to Talladega and destroying it. We're racing for a championship. You take your best stuff every single week, and when you run out of good stuff, you take your second-best stuff. That's just the way it is. We'll go to Talladega with the car that finished second in the spring, third last fall, led a ton of laps at Daytona in the 500, and then led almost all of the laps in the July race at Daytona. I don't think you have any choice but to bring that car back."

-jgr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing