TONY STEWART "What Me, Worry?" ATLANTA (Sept. 30, 2008) -- Eleventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship standings and 255 points out of the lead, Tony Stewart has none of the worry that typically occupies driver's minds as they head...
"What Me, Worry?"
ATLANTA (Sept. 30, 2008) -- Eleventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship standings and 255 points out of the lead, Tony Stewart has none of the worry that typically occupies driver's minds as they head to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
The fourth and final restrictor-plate event of the 36-race season is this Sunday at the vast 2.66-mile oval that is Talladega. And while 43 cars jockeying around in a tight pack at speeds nearing 200 mph does produce a few anxious moments for even the most veteran drivers, the anxiety level ratchets up a few notches more in October at Talladega when a championship is on the line.
The Big One, the obligatory multi-car wreck that is as much a part of Talladega as Bear Bryant is to the University of Alabama, has trashed many championship charges while giving life to once dormant title drives.
For those at the top of the standings, namely Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle -- all of whom are separated by only 30 points -- Talladega is indeed worrisome. But for drivers like Stewart and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who join Stewart at the bottom of the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings in the 10th and 12th positions, respectively, Talladega is simply opportunity, for there is nowhere to go but up.
Stewart in particular has high hopes for Sunday's AMP Energy 500. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing has finished second at Talladega six times in his 10-year Sprint Cup career. And while the championship points that have come with those second-place finishes have been nice, Stewart can't put them on display in his trophy room.
But earlier this year in April when the NASCAR Nationwide Series served as the Saturday undercard to Sunday's Sprint Cup show, Stewart finally earned that long-sought win at Talladega. In a red Joe Gibbs Racing-prepared No. 20 Old Spice Toyota, Stewart started the 117-lap race from the pole and went on to lead five times for a race-high 81 laps to take his second restrictor-plate race win of the Nationwide Series season and his first win of any kind at Talladega. Stewart won the Nationwide Series season-opener at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in February -- the sister track to Talladega.
Now the two-time Sprint Cup champion returns to Talladega ready to bookend that Nationwide Series triumph from six months ago with a win in Sunday's Sprint Cup race.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Is the fall race at Talladega slightly more nerve-wracking, because when you're in the Chase there's more on the line?
"It is if you're leading the points. I don't think for us, with the situation we're in, that it's at all nerve-wracking. We're looking at it as an opportunity to gain some points and positions. We can't go much lower than where we are now, so unlike the teams ahead of us, we really don't have to worry about losing points. I really never worried about it. Every time you're at Talladega you try to take care of yourself and your equipment by not getting yourself in compromising positions that are going to take you out of an opportunity to get you to the end of the race. For me, it's no different whether the race is in April during the regular season or in October when I'm in the Chase."
You've finished second at Talladega six times in 19 career Sprint Cup races. But you finally earned a breakthrough win at Talladega back in April when you won the Nationwide Series race there. How much of a confidence booster was that win for you, especially in your return trip to Talladega this weekend?
"It's a different deal in the Cup Series. It's a different group of drivers and a different competition level. I'm just happy that I got a chance to finally win a race at Talladega. It's a track that means a lot to me. We've got a ton of friends down there and colleagues from the Fayette County Sheriff's Department there too. It's a place I always look forward to running well because it means so much to me."
Last year's October race at Talladega marked the debut for the current generation car at a restrictor-plate race. Now that you've had a year to race this car full-time, do you feel you've found a better understanding of what you need to be both quick and comfortable?
"At Talladega, it's still a work in progress, but the cars drive really well there. It's the one track you go to where handling really isn't an issue. It's about getting the car freed up and at the same time making sure it sucks up to the cars in front of it and drafts well."
As a driver, how much input do you have in making the car go fast at Talladega?
"The race situation is a lot different from practice. You tend to have a much larger pack of cars and that makes a really big difference. But you're still able to figure out what your car likes and dislikes in the draft during practice. It may not be exactly what you'll experience in the race, but it's the closest thing to it. Basically, it gives you an idea of what your car is capable of and where you need to be to make the moves you want."
When you're in the draft, how much control do you feel you have inside the race car?
"It depends on the circumstances. You can't see the air and you hit different pockets (of air). You hit a pocket where you get a real big tow or you hit a pocket where it seems they're getting a tow and pulling you back, and you just have to play the circumstances. That's why we spend so much time and run so many laps at practice. You just try getting in different scenarios and try to learn if you get in the middle of the draft, what does it do? Will it give you a push? Will it not give you a push? If you get next to this car, does it suck you up or does it slow you down? That's why so many guys will stay out for so long in practice. It's trial and error, but at the same time, it's like pulling a pin on a grenade. You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, the car's torn up for the race. It's just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it."
You've been in Sprint Cup for 10 years. When you first started in the series, you seemed frustrated after getting out of the car at Daytona and Talladega because you weren't used to the draft and that style of racing. Now, you appear to be a master of the draft. Do you feel like you've come full circle when it comes to restrictor-plate racing?
"If you're smart, after 10 years, surely you'll learn something. We're not sending a space shuttle to the moon here, so it's not like it was something that was out of our reach as far as trying to be able to learn. You hope that with 10 years of experience, you'd at least learn enough to keep yourself competitive. I don't think we're a master of the draft, but I do feel like we've learned enough about it. I think our record speaks for itself for how many laps we've led and where we've been. We obviously know how to get ourselves in position to win. It's just sometimes finishing the race off has been the hard part."
In order to win a restrictor-plate race, you've got to have drafting help. How do you get that help? Is it something you develop over time?
"I think it's more a situation of guys finding the fast cars, and you finding the guys that you know are going to go with you because they know you're quick. If they go with you, they're going to get you to the front, which is going to get them to the front. It's kind of 'help me, help you.'"
Luck is a term often associated with success at Talladega. Are you a believer in luck?
"Absolutely. This year is proof that you can also have bad luck, too. We've just not had any luck all year. It seems like the races that we do get ourselves in good position, then toward the end something bad happens and we get out of that position. I think it's that way in everything and every aspect of life. You have to have some luck on your side. There are people that you know that just have absolutely rotten luck, and no matter what they do, they just can't get a break. It seems like in this sport it always comes around. For every bit of success you have, you're going to have a low moment also, and it's just weathering the storm and waiting until it gets back on a high note again."