Talladega: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Past Due at 'Dega ATLANTA (April 21, 2008) -- For some, April 15 has come and gone, and their tax bill is officially past due. For Tony Stewart, his taxes are paid, but he's well overdue in another department -- winning at Talladega...

TONY STEWART
Past Due at 'Dega

ATLANTA (April 21, 2008) -- For some, April 15 has come and gone, and their tax bill is officially past due. For Tony Stewart, his taxes are paid, but he's well overdue in another department -- winning at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing has finished second at the 2.66-mile oval six times in his 10-year career in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. 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.

Despite championships in NASCAR, the IRL IndyCar Series and USAC, along with multiple wins in each of those series, there is still plenty off space remaining in Stewart's trophy Taj Mahal for some Talladega-inscribed hardware.

The two-time Sprint Cup Series champion has risen from a restrictor-plate neophyte as a rookie in 1999 to a master of the draft in 2008.

At the 2.5-mile Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway -- Talladega's restrictor-plate cousin -- Stewart has scored two Sprint Cup wins (July 2004 and 2005), three NASCAR Nationwide Series wins (February 2005, 2006 and 2008), an IROC win (2002) and five wins in such non-point races as the Budweiser Shootout (2001, 2002 and 2007) and the Gatorade Duel (2005 and 2007).

And even when Stewart isn't winning, he's at the front of the pack. In the past 13 restrictor-plate races (2005-2008), Stewart has led 539 of the 2,428 laps available (22.2 percent). And in his 37 career restrictor plate races, Stewart has led a total of 715 laps -- 532 laps led at Daytona and 183 laps led at Talladega.

Needless to say, Stewart is primed to knock Talladega off his "to-do" list and separate himself from Bobby Allison and Mark Martin. Stewart is tied with the two racing veterans for the most runner-up finishes without a victory at a track currently on the Sprint Cup schedule. Allison finished second six times at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and never won, while Martin holds this distinction at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.

Stewart plans to use his 19th career Sprint Cup start at Talladega on Sunday by stamping "paid" on the track's victory lane.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:

You've finished second six times at Talladega and logged eight top-fives and 11 top-10s in 18 career Sprint 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. Anytime you can finish in the top-two is like a win at Talladega, especially when you've done it as consistently as we have. As volatile as Talladega can be with getting caught in a wreck and this or that, for us to have finished second there six times, that's something to be pretty proud of because Talladega is not a race track where you can do it all on your own. You've got to have help. 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."

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 Talladega and Daytona 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."

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."

With the debut of the Car of Tomorrow last fall at Talladega and earlier this year at Daytona, do you have a better idea of what this current generation car can and can't do, or is it really all that different from the older generation car you used to run?

"It's going to be the same this year at Talladega as it was last year at Talladega for the most part. From a driver's perspective, you don't have to relearn anything. From the crew side, you have to relearn everything. You've got a whole different package. We've got bump rubbers now. It's a total learning process again, which is why we had a two-day test at Talladega last fall."

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."

Despite having not won yet this season, you've run relatively well. From that standpoint, are you happy with where the No. 20 team stands among the competition?

"This business is strictly a week-to-week business. What you did last week may or may not work this week. The main reason for that is technology. Every week people are working to get their programs better than what they were the week before. If some organization hits on something, you could be a top-five car and all of a sudden struggle to be a top-10 car. That being said, I'm fairly happy with where we're at. We just don't have anything to show for it, and that's what is so frustrating. There's a lot of racing left. We want to win everywhere we go, and our team is working hard to do just that."

You and your new teammate -- Kyle Busch -- ran exceptionally strong throughout Daytona Speedweeks and you appeared to have the two best cars in the Daytona 500, despite finishing third and fourth, respectively. How has the communication been at Joe Gibbs Racing since Kyle joined the team?

"I think it's been great. It's probably been better amongst the three teams than it's ever been. With Kyle coming on board we now have a debrief session after the last practice on Saturday or the final session. We all get together -- all three drivers, all three crew chiefs and all three engineers from each team all get together. We drivers talk about how our cars drove, the crew chiefs talk about what changes we made to compensate for the balance, and together with the engineers, we talk about what we think we might be able to do to make the cars better for the race. I think from the communication side, he's brought a lot to the table and helped us elevate our program."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Bobby Allison , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing