Talladega: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Full Plate at Talladega ATLANTA (April 25, 2006) - Of the 747 laps available in the four restrictor plate races held last year, Tony Stewart led 325 of those laps and finished seventh, second, first and second to log an average ...

TONY STEWART
Full Plate at Talladega

ATLANTA (April 25, 2006) - Of the 747 laps available in the four restrictor plate races held last year, Tony Stewart led 325 of those laps and finished seventh, second, first and second to log an average finish of third.

The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series enjoyed a stellar restrictor plate season in 2005. He nabbed the first plate win of his Nextel Cup career at Daytona (Fla.) in July with a dominating performance - winning the pole and leading all but nine of the race's 160 laps. The Daytona triumph shouldn't have come as a surprise, for in the season-opening Daytona 500 Stewart led seven times for 107 laps before getting shuffled out of the draft in the waning laps to finish seventh. And at Talladega (Ala.), home to the other two restrictor plate races, Stewart bookended his July win at Daytona with consecutive second-place finishes.

What does 2006 offer? If this year's Daytona Speedweeks are tea leaves, Stewart is again poised for more restrictor plate success. Between the non-point Budweiser Shootout and the Gatorade Duel qualifying race, Stewart led 22 laps and finished third and eighth, respectively. And in the Daytona 500, Stewart essentially ran three races in one, coming from the back of the 43-car field to the front on three separate occasions to lead a total of 20 laps before finishing fifth.

Now the two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion comes to Talladega determined to win again. Stewart has finished second five times in his 14 career Nextel Cup starts at the 2.66-mile oval. He's not complaining - second-place still paid a lot of points and helped earn Stewart championships in 2002 and 2005 - but winning is The Home Depot Racing Team's intent 38 weekends out of the year.

They already have one victory under their collective belts this year at the antithesis of Talladega - the .526-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, the smallest track on the Nextel Cup circuit - and now they're looking for their first win at the biggest track on the circuit. Talladega provides that opportunity with Sunday's Aaron's 499.

NASCAR has altered the front bumper configuration for Nextel Cup cars at restrictor plate races beginning with this weekend's event at Talladega. It's less rigid and susceptible to caving in if the art of bump-drafting - where one car hits the car in front of it to push the two cars faster around the race track - is aggressively applied. What is your opinion on the rules change and will it prevent cars from hitting one another, especially through the corners?

"I give NASCAR 1,000 percent credit for being proactive. Hopefully it's the right thing. I mean, it's something we discussed with them in February. If it's something that makes the racing better for everybody and keeps everybody out of that situation (bump-drafting), then it's done its job. At least NASCAR is trying something for this event. We'll see how it works out."

You've finished second five times at Talladega and logged seven top-fives and nine top-10s in 14 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. 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."

Is there any strategy involved in running a restrictor plate race, or is it just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented?

"The strategy is making sure you've got somebody you can draft with. You have to take the opportunities as they come, but with those opportunities you have to make a very quick decision. You've got to think, 'What happens if I try this and it doesn't work? What are the ramifications going to be?' You don't have the luxury of sitting down and taking the time to analyze the situation. You've got to make a split-second decision. A lot of times it'll work, but there are times when the decision that you made doesn't work. But once you've committed yourself to doing something, there's not much you can do about it."

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.

"It's such a chess match. You can be leading the race one second and you can be fifth the next second. I think it's just a matter of timing and getting yourself in the right place at the right time."

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."

Do you enjoy racing at Talladega?

"You can say the track hasn't been kind to me with as many second place finishes as we've had, but there are 41 guys who didn't have it as good as we had it those days. There have been a lot of days where we ran second and it was as good as a win for us. Last year's spring race was a perfect example. We knew we didn't have the best car, but we ended up with a second-place finish. That was the best we could do and we left the track with smiles on our faces.

"The Talladega weeks are always fun weeks for me because I go fishing and it's a week where I don't turn my cell phone on and I don't worry about the race car. It's just a week to kind of hit the reset button, and by the time I get to the track, I'm fresh and ready to go. I always have fun when I come to 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."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:

What are your thoughts on the new front bumper configuration set to debut Talladega?

"It's definitely a step in the right direction to make the bump-drafting minimal. What's going to happen is that with these cars, the noses are so sensitive, specifically the air inlet and that radius, if you damage that, your car's going to run hot. The way the noses are mounted on these cars, they're so high that keeping the engine cool is a hard thing to get mastered anyway. If you hurt that radius, you're going to just make yourself a real long day. I think everybody's going to have to be aware of that, and hopefully it will help the situation."

Do you think there will come a point late in the race, maybe with two or three laps to go, that drivers won't consider the overheating aspect and use that front bumper to bump-draft anyway?

"I don't know. I guess we'll find that out here shortly. The end of the race is the end of the race. Everybody's going to do what they've got to do. I think a lot of it just goes back to having respect for each other and racing people like you want to be raced. It's restrictor plate racing. It's just part of the environment. But it's tough to ask a driver to go out there and do that for so long, when other people can dictate what you can do. It's just so different than going to California and Texas and working on your car. You need other people to do things to make your moves. I think everybody kind of received the message and everybody will be a little more respectful and hopefully this won't be a topic in the future."

-jgr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing