TONY STEWART Maximizing Momentum ATLANTA (April 12, 2005) - Momentum in auto racing can be fleeting, be it the physical momentum of a race car's lap times or the psychological momentum of a race team's fortunes. Just ask Tony Stewart, driver...
ATLANTA (April 12, 2005) - Momentum in auto racing can be fleeting, be it the physical momentum of a race car's lap times or the psychological momentum of a race team's fortunes. Just ask Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.
Fresh off a strong third-place finish April 3 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Stewart hit the following Sunday's race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway running, leading four times for a race-high 247 laps. But just as Stewart's momentum seemed ready to morph into a steamroller, he was steamrolled by a broken wheel less than 70 laps short of the checkered flag. The subsequent 26th place finish might've been a rally killer for some Nextel Cup teams, but not for the #20 Home Depot Racing Team.
"That was the best car we've ever had at Martinsville," said Stewart, now in his seventh year with The Home Depot-sponsored Joe Gibbs Racing Team. "We can't change how the day went. It's all over with. But we know we had a great car, in fact, the best car there. There wasn't anybody who was going to beat us. Jeff Gordon got the trophy, but he wasn't going to beat us. We had the best car. All you had to do was look at the lap times. They could run with us for 15 or 18 laps, but we always drove away. That's the positive thing we took away from that race. We're strong, we're a team and we left Martinsville with our heads up high."
When momentum is on your side, you want to maximize it, for its shelf life is unknown. And despite the sub-par Martinsville result, Stewart appreciates the momentum that comes with leading almost four times as many laps as his nearest competitor, finishing position notwithstanding.
So the 2002 series champion feels he has some serious momentum heading into Sunday's Samsung/RadioShack 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Thanks to excellent preparation by his Joe Gibbs Racing crew and tenacious driving by Stewart, the 19-time race winner is a solid fifth in points entering round seven of the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule.
With the tricky 1.5-mile Texas oval next up for the Nextel Cuppers, momentum is a precious commodity, especially at a race track known for its servings of humble pie. And while Stewart and Co. have endured the sour taste of sub-par Texas finishes, they've also earned four top-10 finishes in their six career starts, the best being a fifth-place result en route to their title run. With another championship in their sights - buoyed by their recent momentum - another strong Texas run is in the offing.
You've raced an entire season under the revised point system. You've had an off-season to digest its implications. And here you are this year, fifth in the point standings entering the seventh race of the season. Did you learn anything about making sure you're in the top-10 points after the 26th race of the season that you're already applying to this year?
"Our race weekend at Las Vegas was a perfect example of how we're approaching this season. We brought a car that was totally different from anything that we'd ever run there before. We didn't really have a chance to test it much before we actually raced it. We typically wouldn't have run that car unless we had tested it enough to be comfortable with it. But with Las Vegas being so early in the season and knowing that all you have to do is get yourself in the top-10 by the 27th race of the season, it gave us the flexibility to try new things. Even now, if something that we try this weekend at Texas doesn't work, we still have 19 races to get caught up. That's an entire season in some racing series.
"It takes a little pressure off at the beginning of the season as far as looking at the points sheet. We can just concentrate on where we're at and what we need to do to make ourselves better so that we're ready to go for that last third of the season."
Where are the passing zones at Texas?
"I think you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy that misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn't make a mistake and you've got a little better car than they do, I honestly think the groove will move up a little bit this year to where it'll be a little wider and you'll have more room to get a run on a guy. But as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car's handling will become more important. And when a guy makes a mistake you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up."
Despite the relative youth of Texas Motor Speedway, it's had a history of being a treacherous race track. Why is that?
"I've run there in a Busch car, an IRL (Indy Racing League) car and in a Cup car with this Home Depot team. I never looked at it as a treacherous race track. For some reason, it seemed that the track's transitions were very line-sensitive. The entries and exits to the corners are very tricky, and that's what makes Texas difficult. I don't think it's treacherous. You just have to hit your marks every lap. Texas doesn't leave a whole lot of room for error."
Has Texas been one of the tracks on the Nextel Cup circuit where getting comfortable has been hard to achieve?
"It hasn't been a good track for us historically. It just seems like Texas is one of those places where we haven't figured out how to be a top-flight car. We've never set the world on fire at Texas, but we have had some solid runs. It's one of the places where we have to try and pick up our performance. For me, it comes down to just feel more than anything. A driver has to like the feel of his race car and the feel of the track. If one of those things doesn't mesh right, then you're probably not going to be as successful as you want to be."
Before you raced at Texas in a stock car, you raced there in an Indy Racing League car. What was the difference?
"The IRL car was nothing like driving a stock car. You could go anywhere on the track with the IRL car that you wanted to, and you could run wide-open while doing it. It was as easy as riding down the interstate, whereas with a stock car, you're not off the gas very long, but you do have to lift. With the track being so line-sensitive, it's really important that you're doing the same thing every lap, and making sure you're very consistent in how you're driving the car."
You'll be competing in the Busch race this Saturday at Texas for Kevin Harvick, Inc. How much does running a Busch car help you on Sunday when you climb into your Nextel Cup car?
"I think that running the Busch car gives us a bigger start on Friday because we have a lot more information to work with as we get ready for qualifying. Before we even start Cup practice I'll have been out on the track in the Busch car for two hours, so we'll have a good understanding as to what we'll need in our Home Depot Chevrolet when we're out there getting it ready for qualifying. As far as the race goes, running a Busch car doesn't hurt, that's for sure."
How much do you think the Busch Series has changed from when you ran there fairly regularly in 1998?
"I think the Busch Series has progressed the same way the Nextel Cup Series has progressed. The sponsorship dollars have gone up and the level of competition has gone up. There are still a dozen good cars each week that can go out and win the race. You're still working with the same group of people who can go out and win each week.
"The cars have changed quite a bit. They have more horsepower and they're a lot more similar to a Cup car than they used to be. And the series still has some really, really good teams out there. But there's a bunch of new guys out there that you don't really know too much about. So you always have to be careful when you go out there and run with guys you don't know. You've got to learn what they do and what they don't do."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
How similar is Texas to its sister tracks in Atlanta and Charlotte?
"We had a package last year at the mile-and-a-half ovals that we were able to take to a lot of different places. That's what we're trying to develop right now. On race weekends, our practices are so short that we really don't have time to fine tune the car with springs and bars and shocks. You don't have time to deal with A-frame lengths and spindle heights and all those other things. That's why we test. We're just trying to develop those packages, so that when we go to a place like Texas, we can just throw some springs and shocks at the car and fine tune it. That way, we're not way off, searching and wasting a lot of time."
Can your history of strong runs at Atlanta translate into a good run at Texas?
"Texas is different. It's always been a place that's had a lack of grip. You don't have enough grip to get into the corners as hard as you want, and then it makes your car tight in the center and on exit. Unless you have a really well-balanced race car, Texas is a place where you can struggle. We've struggled with getting our driver comfortable in the car, to where he has a lot of confidence like he does at Atlanta, where he can just sail that thing down into the corner and know that it's going to stick."