Talladega II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART If It Can Happen There, It Can Happen Here ATLANTA (Oct. 4, 2007) -- Down three games and facing elimination from the rival New York Yankees in the 2004 American League division championship, the Boston Red Sox rallied to beat...


If It Can Happen There, It Can Happen Here

ATLANTA (Oct. 4, 2007) -- Down three games and facing elimination from the rival New York Yankees in the 2004 American League division championship, the Boston Red Sox rallied to beat the Yankees in four straight games to advance to the World Series and complete the greatest comeback in baseball history, and perhaps the history of sports. The Red Sox then capped their record run with a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals to earn their first World Series triumph in 86 years.

If such a swing of fortune can take place on the ball fields of Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, then a similar swing of the pendulum can occur at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

The 2.66-mile oval is the site of Sunday's UAW-Ford 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race, the fourth round of the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, enters Talladega fourth among the 12 drivers competing in the post-regular season playoff. The two-time Nextel Cup champion is 117 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson, and while seven races still remain before a champion is crowned following the season finale Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart knows that a bad race in that span can mean elimination from title contention.

In last week's race at Kansas, Stewart appeared to be in the catbird's seat. He had the lead when rain halted the race past its halfway point, meaning that if the race were called, it would be official and Stewart would have his fourth win of the season. The win would have also given Stewart the lead in the championship point standings. But after an almost two-and-a-half hour delay, the sun was shining, the track was dry and racing resumed.

Part II of the Kansas race didn't go well for Stewart, as a chain-reaction accident caused Stewart to dent his left front fender. That led to a tire rub, which led to a flat tire, which led to a crash, which led to a 39th-place finish.

For Stewart, his championship charge begins anew at Talladega.

The largest track on the Nextel Cup circuit marks the debut for the Car of Tomorrow (CoT), the new generation of race car that so far has raced only on tracks of a mile or less in length and the two road courses at Sonoma (Calif.) and Watkins Glen (N.Y.). How the new car, which features a splitter just below the front bumper, a taller greenhouse and a rear wing, will react among a group of 42 other cars at speeds approaching 200 mph is the million dollar question. Or in the case of those competing for a championship, the $8 million dollar question, for that's the estimated take for this year's Nextel Cup champion.

Stewart has six runner-up finishes at Talladega, but no wins. Talladega is one of only four Nextel Cup tracks where he has yet to record a victory. But in the month of October -- the historic playoff push in baseball and now home to NASCAR's version of the playoffs -- Stewart has nabbed four of his 32 career wins.

Needing a good finish to stay in the hunt for this year's championship, Stewart views Talladega as his game four.

You tested the CoT at Talladega for the first time Sept. 10-11, along with all of the other Nextel Cup teams. You had the chance to make mock qualifying laps and bump-draft among a pack of cars, and you also tested two different sized restrictor plates. What did you learn and what do you expect at Talladega this weekend?

"Even though you had all the teams down there, it was hard to get everybody organized to all go out on the track at once. And NASCAR wasn't going to let all the cars go on the race track. You weren't going to have 50 some odd teams and 50 some odd cars on the track at a time. But it was hard to get more than about 12 to 15 cars in a pack at a time and, believe it or not, when you put 43 of us in a pack we will run much faster than what we will run as 10- and 12-car packs. We know that it is a very big possibility that there could be an adjustment this weekend (in the size of the restrictor plate). NASCAR has a speed range they want us to be in, and I have no problem with that. I understand why. They're taking stock cars made of tubing. It's different when you're in an Indy car and you're sitting in a tub made of composite materials, but when you're sitting in a Cup car that's steel tubing and everything, we need to stay in the speed range they've got kind of earmarked for us. So, we'll see what happens this weekend. It leads you to think, don't get too comfortable with the speed with the first session that you're running because you may have to change something. They can change it at any time and that's going to keep all of us on our toes this weekend.

"As far as how the cars drive, they drive really well. They handle good. It's just a matter of figuring out how good they suck up in the draft. They seem to suck up ok in the draft. It just seems like it's going to be really hard to get out front and lead. When you get out and you pull out of the draft, the cars have a lot of drag in them so it's going to be hard to stay out front, but it should make for a lot of lead changes. It won't be a situation where you get too disappointed if you get shuffled out of the draft and you go back to 20th, because you know in five or six more laps you could be right back in the front."

You've finished second six times at Talladega and logged eight top-fives and 10 top-10s in 17 career Nextel Cup starts. Despite those strong finishes, does not having won bother you?

"No, not at all. I mean, Talladega is a track where you can't do anything on your own. You have to strictly rely on what everybody else around you is doing. 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. We haven't won there, but look at how many second-place finishes we've had. Anytime you can finish in the top-two is like a win at Talladega, especially when you've done it as consistently as we have. As volatile as Talladega can be with getting caught in a wreck and this or that, for us to have finished second there six times, that's something to be pretty proud of because Talladega is not a race track where you can do it all on your own. You've got to have help. Our finishing average is pretty high -- higher than most for the amount of races we've run there. So I'm pretty satisfied with the way we've run there."

Since it seems as though you've mastered restrictor plate racing, do you still dislike it?

"I dislike anything where you have to rely on somebody else. To me, what you and your team do should be what it's all about. I don't like having to have a guy behind you or in front of you dictate what you do and where you go. That's really the one reason why I dislike it. It's very nerve-wracking when you can't plan your moves unless you know what the guy behind you or in front of you is going to do."

How much of a crapshoot is Talladega, especially now with the tightened points format for those of you in the top-12?

"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-12 are really going to be careful, but they're still going to have to race hard to gain as many points as they can."

You came from the open-wheel ranks of USAC and the IRL IndyCar Series to NASCAR. Now, a recent spate of Formula One and Indy car drivers are coming to NASCAR. Juan Pablo Montoya came to NASCAR from Formula One a year ago, and now Jacques Villeneuve is following in his footsteps and making his first career Nextel Cup start at Talladega. IndyCar's Dario Franchitti will race in Nextel Cup full-time next year, and it's rumored Sam Hornish Jr., will join him. Why the influx of so many open-wheel drivers to NASCAR?

"You can tell the momentum, as far as drivers wanting to come into NASCAR, is gaining. Obviously, I think with Juan Pablo coming into the series, it's given a lot of these open-wheel drivers the confidence that they can come in and have the same success. I'm not sure it's as easy as Juan's making it look, but for sure it shows how popular our series is right now and how good of a job NASCAR's done in marketing it. It really shows these guys that this is the number one series in the United States. I think it's neat that we're getting a different group of guys that are coming in, and it's just going to add to the spice of the series."

What is different about racing in NASCAR compared to Indy car and even Formula One?

"I think it's a little more physical of a sport as far as we can get into each other and it doesn't necessarily crash somebody like it does in the open-wheel cars. In open-wheel racing, they're really bad about chopping each other off and coming across each other's noses and things like that. I think that's something that those guys will have to learn when they come over here. It's a little different from the style of racing that they're used to."

What did you learn driving midgets and sprint cars in USAC that contributed to your success in NASCAR?

"I was used to driving cars with higher horsepower. The midgets didn't have a ton of horsepower, but the horsepower to weight ratio was around three-to-one. With a sprint car you've got about 800 horsepower, and they only weigh 1,200 pounds. Learning to deal with all that horsepower in the Nextel Cup car was something that was familiar to me already. Whereas, you go to a lot of the late model and sportsman divisions around the country, and most of those people aren't used to dealing with that kind of horsepower."

What was the toughest thing to adapt to upon making the switch to stock cars?

"The physical weight of the cars. Midgets weigh 900 pounds. Sprint cars weigh 1,200 pounds. Silver Crown cars weigh 1,400 pounds. Indy cars weigh 1,550-1,600 pounds. The only other thing that I've driven that had any weight to it was an IMCA modified and it weighed 2,400 pounds, as well as my late model which weighs 2,400 pounds. You go from those kinds of cars all the way to cars that weigh 3,300-3,400 pounds, that was probably the biggest adjustment."

-credit: jgr

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya