TONY STEWART Game Changer KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 27, 2010) - What is a game changer? It's something that completely changes the way something is done, thought about or made. See also, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, site of Sunday's AMP Energy...
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 27, 2010) - What is a game changer? It's something that completely changes the way something is done, thought about or made. See also, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, site of Sunday's AMP Energy Juice 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Talladega, especially when the series makes its fall visit to the 2.66-mile oval, can be the biggest game-changer 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^a 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. Multi-car accidents, better known as Big Ones, jumble the point standings as front-runners are collected while others emerge unscathed.
The Big One is bound to happen again at Talladega, and if history is any indication, more than once during Sunday's 188-lap contest, which, ironically, will run on Halloween. 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 for Stewart-Haas Racing, is one of them.
Jimmie Johnson, the four-time and reigning series champion, is again at the top of the point standings. But young Denny Hamlin is a tenacious six points behind in second. Third-place Kevin Harvick is 62 points back, giving many onlookers the notion that this year's championship chase is between just three men. After all, fourth-place Kyle Busch is 172 points out of first, fifth-place Jeff Gordon is 203 points down, sixth-place Carl Edwards is 213 points arrears and seventh-place Stewart is 236 points away from Johnson.
Lurking is Talladega, where championship charges can be shored up or torn down. For Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick, Talladega represents a golden opportunity to put their stamp on this year's championship, for only three races will remain after the checkered flag drops. For those outside the top-three, including Stewart, their championship chances will either remain intact or get blown-up, where a new strategy of logging a top-five point finish takes the place of taking the title.
Proof of this can be found in the Sprint Cup Series' spring race at Talladega, where a late-race crash sent Johnson to a 31st-place finish while Harvick won and Hamlin finished fourth. Just as Harvick and Hamlin found opportunity in April, Stewart seeks it in October. He's a two-time race winner at Talladega - once in Sprint Cup (October 2008) and once in the NASCAR Nationwide Series (April 2008) - and the two-time Sprint Cup champion has 15 other wins at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway - the sister track to Talladega.
With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Stewart seeks a game-changing race at Talladega.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala 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."
Do you expect to see another big crash in Sunday's race at Talladega?
"Well, if I knew that I would probably be a bookie in Las Vegas. I mean, nobody knows that for sure. Any time that you're in a pack where you've got cars on top of each other like we do, that potential is always there. It's no different now than it was 15 years ago when I was watching this series and they were doing the same thing. The game is the same. It hasn't changed that much. So, that potential is always going to be there."
How would you rate yourself as a restrictor-plate racer?
"Well, I'm not any happier about it than I've always been, but we've had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks, especially Talladega. We've run in the top-two there a gazillion times. I'm glad we're halfway decent at it, but it's still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does. It's not what you do. It's what you do along with somebody else who decides that they're going to follow you and help you. That's the part that frustrates you as a driver."
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."
Back in the day, restrictor-plate racing meant racing against Dale Earnhardt - at least if you were racing for the win. Ten years ago at Talladega marked Earnhardt's 76th and last career Sprint Cup win. Do you have any special memories from your time racing against him?
"You just always knew that, if he was behind you, it wasn't going to be easy keeping him behind you. There was a reason that he got the nickname 'Intimidator.' When you looked in the mirror, you were intimidated by him. Not so much that you were actually intimidated, but you knew that it wasn't going to be like racing with someone else. If he got to you and if he didn't get by you in a couple of corners, then he was going to lean on you a little bit. You might wreck, you might keep going, but he was going to make it interesting. That's what made him so special. The first Bud Shootout we won at Daytona, we outran him there and that was as much as I ever wanted to see of that black '3' in my mirror. That was way too much stress. It was more mental stress than it was physical stress. My mind was wore out after winning that race because he had such a large bag of tricks at Daytona and Talladega that just watching what he was doing and trying to figure out what he was thinking or trying to set up just made you exhausted. Driving the car was easy, it was just trying to mentally figure out and trying to stay up to pace with what his thought process was at the time and knowing how to anticipate what his next move was going to be to beat him."