Tony Stewart Looking for a Breakout, Not a Break-up ATLANTA (April 20, 2004) - After a second-place finish in this year's Daytona 500 and three other second-place finishes in his last six races at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, NASCAR NEXTEL...
Looking for a Breakout, Not a Break-up
ATLANTA (April 20, 2004) - After a second-place finish in this year's Daytona 500 and three other second-place finishes in his last six races at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart is looking to break out from his runner-up status at restrictor plate venues. But casting a long shadow over Stewart and his #20 Home Depot Chevrolet is Dale Earnhardt Jr., current point leader and winner of six restrictor plate races, including the season-opening Daytona 500.
In three of the four second-place finishes Stewart has earned in restrictor plate races, the man taking the checkered flag just ahead of him has been Earnhardt. And while there is disappointment that none of his 17 career wins have come at restrictor plate tracks, Stewart knows full well that his strong showings - including a third in last year's fall Talladega race - may not have been possible without Earnhardt's help.
Going on four years now, the two drivers have become unofficial teammates at Talladega and Daytona (Fla.) with unquestionable results.
Before the 2001 season, Stewart's best restrictor plate finish was fifth in the 1999 spring Talladega race. It was his only top-five finish in eight restrictor plate races since his Cup career began in 1999. And for Earnhardt, who joined the series in 2000, his best restrictor plate finish was 13th in that year's Daytona 500. But 2001 is where it all seemed to come together. Stewart snared second-place finishes at both Talladega races, while Earnhardt earned two restrictor plate wins - Daytona in July and Talladega in October, the latter care of a strong push from Stewart.
It is a tandem that will continue to work together during this weekend's Aaron's 499 at Talladega, despite Stewart's penchant for winning and disdain for anything less.
"Everybody is beatable on the right day," said Stewart. "But you can't do any of this restrictor plate racing without a partner. You've got to have someone you can work with and someone you can trust. That's what Dale and I have with each other. That doesn't mean that either one of us is going to lie down for one another - because we're both here to win - but we know we need each other to get into a position to win."
You've seemed to work with Dale Earnhardt Jr., a lot during past restrictor plate races, with this year's Daytona 500 being a prime example. Has he become an unofficial teammate for you at Talladega and Daytona?
"We both know that we run really well together. I guess to a certain degree we are unofficial teammates. My teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing - Bobby Labonte - when we're able to run together we typically run well. I think Bobby's philosophy on running together is different than Junior's and mine. Basically, you just find guys you're comfortable running with, and I'm very comfortable running with Bobby whenever I can. But it seems like Junior and I somehow always find each other and get with each other and have the confidence in one another to know that whoever's leading, that the guy behind him knows that if the guy in front makes a move, the guy in second is going to go with him. That's the confidence Junior and I have together. When you have the pairing that Junior and I have, we trust each other and it gives us a level of confidence that not too many drivers have found with other drivers. He's real comfortable with me and I'm real comfortable with him. Our view is that if we get together, then we can go by everybody. As long as we end up getting grouped together, we always get back to the front - no matter what.
"As far as getting together at the restrictor plate tracks, it probably started about three years ago during Daytona Speedweeks. It seemed like every time we went out on the track we were around each other. A lot of our theories on how to run restrictor plate races are very similar. When you run with each other as much as we did, we kind of got a respect and a trust with each other. He knows that when I'm behind him that if he goes somewhere - whether it's right or wrong - I'm going to go with him. And he's the same with me."
What is the relationship between you and Earnhardt?
"I think we admire each other because we're both fierce competitors, but we like to have fun too. We're a lot alike in a lot of ways. Our backgrounds are totally different from each other, obviously, but we enjoy a lot of the same things. I think we both respect each other for what we do and what we've been able to accomplish in our careers. We just have a good friendship. When I started in this series and when he started in this series, there weren't a ton of guys to do a lot of stuff with. So I think we just kind of gravitated toward one another.
"With our travel schedules the way they are, we don't get a chance to do a lot of things together. There's projects like running his Busch car last year - that was fun to do and we're going to do it again this year. This year we ran the Rolex 24 Hour race together and almost won it, and I've already told him to make plans to be back down there again next year so we can finish what we started. It's just a good friendship."
Was there anything learned at Daytona during Speedweeks that you can apply toward Talladega?
"We got to race each other this year at Daytona. Daytona is more of a handling track than Talladega, but still, drivers had to drive their cars and adjust. We may not have had 20 guys go across the line within a couple of tenths of one another, but who cares? For the first time in a long time, we got to race. And that's really what racing is all about. I hope we see some more of that at 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."
Is a fast car all you need to be successful in restrictor plate races?
"You have to have a fast car. But with that fast car, you've got to have a good team that gets you in and out of the pits fast, and you've got to have a driver who knows what he's doing. Get all that together, along with a little bit of luck, and you can have a good day."
Patience is an obvious virtue on the short tracks, but how important is it at a restrictor plate track?
"It's the gospel, basically. There are a lot of times when you think you can pull out and pass, but if you do, once you get there you realize that you can't pass. It makes it real critical that you take your time and that you don't get caught up in trying to make a move too fast. Just stay in line, and sometimes you'll have more patience than 20 other guys."
Despite aerodynamic changes and a new tire compound for this season, drivers were still talking about having to deal with an "aero push" at fast race tracks. What exactly is an aero push?
"You have two types of balance on your race car. You have mechanical balance and aero balance. Your mechanical balance is comprised of springs, shocks, sway bars and suspension pieces. Your aero balance relates to the total aerodynamics of the car - how the air flows over the top of the race car and how it creates downforce in different areas. If you're running with a car right in front of you, you don't have the air hitting the front of your car as you would if you were running in clean air, where there's no one in front of you. When someone is in front of you and you're not getting that air pushing down on the front of the nose, the car isn't getting the downforce it needs to stick to the race track. That creates an understeer condition, which makes the car push out toward the wall. That's what's happening when you hear drivers complain of an aero push."
You've performed drafting in Nextel Cup and in the Indy Racing League (IRL). Are the drafting principles that you apply in both series the same or are they different?
"It's a lot more technical with the Cup cars because of how close you can run with each other. With the IRL cars, you would just line up straight behind a guy, get a run on him and go by. With the Cup cars it's a lot harder because you have to be real precise with your movements, and you always have to be aware that there are other cars around you all the time. It's not just one car versus another. It's one car versus 42 cars out there all in a big group. With that many cars around you, it just makes it that much harder."