TONY STEWART The Real Wild Card Race KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 28, 2009) -- Thought that with the World Series now upon us the wild card race was just a distant memory? Think again. The real wild card race is this weekend at Talladega ...
The Real Wild Card Race
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 28, 2009) -- Thought that with the World Series now upon us the wild card race was just a distant memory? Think again. The real wild card race is this weekend at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, and it's one that puts the collective efforts of the Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies to shame.
Neither team had much on the line as it entered the baseball postseason, with Red Sox securing the American League wild card by eight games over the Texas Rangers and the Rockies wrapping up the National League wild card by four games over the San Francisco Giants.
It's a far cry from the wild card race facing drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, as Sunday's AMP Energy 500 at the vast 2.66-mile oval that is Talladega is make-it or break-it time... literally.
Talladega, especially the series' fall visit to the track, is the biggest wild card on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule. Horsepower-choking restrictor plates slow the cars enough so that if they get sideways, they won't carry enough speed to launch into the air as the car's aerodynamics become reversed. Chevy Impalas, Ford Fusions, Dodge Chargers and Toyota Camrys weren't made to go 200-plus mph, even when they have crazy paint schemes and numbers painted on their roofs. Formula One machines they aren't, and in the name of safety, the restrictor plate is rudimentary technology that keeps these rudimentary cars grounded... most of the time.
Every now and then a launch button is pushed, and a spectacular somersault of a crash that appears over and over on the next day's rounds of network morning shows penetrates the mainstream. That's exactly what happened in the series' last visit to Talladega in April, when Carl Edwards' spinning Ford was tagged by Ryan Newman's Chevy, punting it into the metal catch-fencing roughly 100 yards from the start/finish line. It was a last-lap crash that culminated a day's worth of calamity, for in that race, three major multi-car accidents, better known as Big Ones, jumbled the point standings as front-runners crashed out while others notched strong results.
The Big One is bound to happen again at Talladega, and if history is any indication, more than once during the race's 188 laps. Who comes out with decent finishes will be the ones still in the hunt for the championship. But for those at the other end of the spectrum, their championship hopes are going to look like their racecars -- unsalvageable.
Many have a tenuous hold on their championship aspirations to begin with. Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), is one of them.
With Jimmie Johnson running roughshod over the field, his bid for a fourth straight championship seems almost assured. His nearest competitor, Mark Martin, is 118 points behind. Third-place Jeff Gordon is 150 points back, and fourth-place Stewart is 192 points down. Juan Pablo Montoya is just behind Stewart in fifth, 200 points arrears Johnson. There is a precipitous drop-off after Montoya, with Kurt Busch 240 points back and Newman, Stewart's SHR teammate, 312 points out. They're racing to secure a top-five spot in the season-ending standings.
For Martin, Gordon, Stewart and Montoya, Talladega is the race where their championship chances will either remain intact or get blown up. They need to run well and they need Johnson to experience difficulty.
Many find that scenario far-fetched, but it actually happened when the Sprint Cup Series visited Talladega in April. The three Big Ones sent four current Chase drivers to finishes of 30th or worse, and three of those drivers are currently ahead of Stewart in the standings. Johnson finished 30th, Gordon was 37th and Martin was dead-last in 43rd.
In the role of hunter, Stewart sniffs opportunity. He's the defending winner of the AMP Energy 500 and he's also the most recent restrictor-plate race winner having dominated the July 4 race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway -- the sister track to Talladega. In that contest, Stewart led nine times for a race-high 86 laps, and the car he used to inflict that pain is the same car he will use this Halloween weekend at Talladega.
With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Stewart's restrictor-plate prowess is a trick he expects will treat him to some well-earned points in a race that puts the "wild" in wild card.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas 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. 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."
With four wins, five if you include the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., a Chase berth along with your teammate earning a spot in the Chase -- all in your first year as a driver/owner -- would you still be disappointed if you don't win the championship?
"In the next four races, we have to get 193 more points than he (Johnson) does. That's the reality of it. There is nothing that says if we do this, this, this and this that it's going to guarantee that we can even get there. A lot of it is dictated by what those guys do in front of us. It's about math. There is no magic to it. We just have to figure out how we can outperform them, and this is a part of the year when they are strong. I don't know if we can do that. So to answer your question if we are going to be disappointed, of course we are going to be disappointed. But at the same time, we're happy for what we've been able to accomplish this year. Is it going to be the end of our world? Absolutely not. No matter where our two teams end up this year, we have a lot to be proud of by just by making the Chase. We did more than 99.9 percent of the people said we could do to begin with, and we exceeded our own expectations. What we get from here forward is a bonus. But we are competitors. We want to win every time that we go out. Of course we want to win the championship, but it's not going to be the end of the world if we don't win it."
Your win last October at Talladega had a little bit of controversy, as you weren't the first car across the finish line, but you were the first car to legally cross the finish line. Regan Smith, who was ahead of you at the finish, wasn't awarded the win because he passed you below the yellow line, which is out-of-bounds territory according to NASCAR. After the race, Smith claimed he was blocked below the yellow line. Looking back, what's your take?
"I've lost Daytona 500s and I've lost races at Talladega because somebody blocked. That's the name of the game. Last year's race wasn't any different than the last 19 races I'd run there. There's always been people blocking. The nice thing is that, for once, I was actually on the right end of it. Trust me, I have no regrets about what I did. I did exactly what I needed to do to win the race, and it worked out."
What is your interpretation of the yellow line ruling, which is used only at restrictor-plate races?
"The first thing that David Hoots (Managing Event Director, NASCAR) always says in the driver's meeting is, 'This is your warning.' The driver's meeting is your warning about staying above the yellow line and racing above the yellow line. They always say that starts with the drop of the green flag to the end of the checkered flag, with emphasis in the corners and the tri-oval. It's been the same speech since they came up with that rule. They've never wavered off of it. It's pretty self-explanatory."
Talladega and Daytona are always mentioned in the same breath because they're both restrictor-plate tracks. But what makes them different?
"Daytona is a handling track and Talladega is a speed track. Nobody has a bad-handling car at Talladega. They all drive well, whereas at Daytona, 90 percent of the battle is getting your car to handle well. It's more of a chess match at Talladega, and that's because the place was repaved just a couple of years ago. It's such a smooth track. Daytona is old. It's got bumps in it and the surface is worn out and it takes grip away, and that's why the mechanical setup of the car is so much more important. At Talladega, because it's so smooth with such a fresh surface, it's got a lot of grip to begin with. Bumps are what normally take grip away. As soon as you start having to work on your suspension, that's when you give up grip. With Talladega being so smooth, it doesn't matter. You can go anywhere you want to go and you have grip."
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 racecar?"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 in 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."
DARIAN GRUBB, Crew Chief of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Do Johnson and the other drivers in front of you need to have problems if you're to have a shot at the championship?
"That is what everybody in the whole series is thinking right now. He's got a dominant performance going and he's out there pulling away from everybody. You have a good strong run and you still lose points. That's a hard day to swallow.
"You never wish bad luck on any of your competitors or any of your friends or anyone out there, but you have to go out there and perform to the best of your ability and hope to capitalize if they do have a bad day. Just whatever happens, you have to be the one to win the race and get the most points. Not only at Talladega, but every track is that way. You never know what is going to happen. We are on the same Hendrick chassis and engine program as they (Johnson and the No. 48 team) are. We really hope we're going to go down there and win the race and see what happens from there. It's still up for grabs. Anyone can have trouble any day, but this Office Depot/Old Spice team is pretty strong. We're just going to keep fighting and see what happens and how it shakes out after it's all over."