TONY STEWART Back in the Saddle ATLANTA (April 9, 2007) -- Tony Stewart is back in the saddle in his return to Texas Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing enters this weekend's Samsung 500 NASCAR ...
Back in the Saddle
ATLANTA (April 9, 2007) -- Tony Stewart is back in the saddle in his return to Texas Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing enters this weekend's Samsung 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at the 1.5-mile oval back in the top-10 in points with the same car he used to pistol-whip the field last November at Texas when he won after leading eight times for a race-high 278 laps.
In fact, Chassis No. 120 has two other wins to its credit -- Kansas and Atlanta -- as Stewart used it to win three of the last eight races in 2006. It has run three times in 2007 and finished in the top-10 on each occasion, including a stellar second-place result at Atlanta -- Texas' sister track -- where Stewart led five times for 121 laps.
Stewart and Co. bring their thoroughbred racer back to Texas with two very important updates. One produces power and the other produces pride.
The No. 20 Home Depot Monte Carlo SS will be powered by Chevrolet's new R07 engine, a piece that's been nine years in the making, and Joe Gibbs Racing's head engine builder Mark Cronquist has been a part of its development since day one.
And with new strength under the hood, it's only fitting that the No. 20 machine carries the spirit of strength on its exterior. A special NASCAR Day paint scheme will adorn Stewart's Home Depot ride at Texas, as the world's largest home improvement retailer is the exclusive retailer of NASCAR Day pins. The paint scheme kicks off Home Depot's role with NASCAR Day, with pins available at stores nationwide April 16.
(NASCAR Day is a one-day celebration of the NASCAR spirit and its fans, and this year's edition will be held on May 18. In exchange for a $5 donation, participants will receive a commemorative 2007 NASCAR Day lapel pin. Proceeds from the sale of NASCAR Day pins at The Home Depot will equally benefit The NASCAR Foundation Family of Charities, which is comprised of more than 30 nonprofit organizations supporting children's causes, animal welfare and conservation efforts. NASCAR Day began in 2004 and celebrates its fourth observance in 2007. In 2006, NASCAR Day raised more than $1.3 million.)
You'll be running a special NASCAR Day paint scheme on your car this weekend at Texas as your sponsor -- The Home Depot -- is the exclusive retailer of NASCAR Day pins, which will be available in all Home Depot stores on April 16. What's your racing luck been when you've run a special paint scheme?
"I've won a couple and I've crashed a couple, so I think I'm back on the upswing of being ready to win with a couple of them. I think we started off really good with some special paint schemes, then we went really bad for a while. I think it's time to go back to being good again."
NASCAR Day is an annual, charitable celebration of the spirit of NASCAR fans. You're no stranger to charity, having given $2 million to Victory Junction Gang Camp and by having your own foundation -- the Tony Stewart Foundation. What do you get out of philanthropy?
"My career, especially before I became a Nextel Cup driver and an Indy car driver, when I decided I was going to quit working and strictly try to make a living driving race cars, there were a lot of times I either had to borrow money to get to the next event or somebody would let me stay overnight in their house. You realize what's been given to you and the help you've gotten along the way. It's nice to be able to return that favor by finally being able to give back. It really completes your life when you're able to do something like this and be able to give something back to the community."
In your last race at Texas back in November, you completely dominated, leading eight times for a race-high 278 laps to secure your 29th career Nextel Cup victory and your first at Texas. Were you surprised by how dominant you were?
"It was obviously an awesome day. Anytime you can lead that many laps and that percentage of laps in a race, it's a good day for you. We had a car that was good all day long from start to finish. In my 28 years of racing it's rare that I've had a car that good. We could get a straightaway lead at any time. I was loose the whole day, but we were extremely fast being loose. We kept trying to get greedy because we knew at some point guys would get their cars better and I wanted to see if I could get it tightened up enough to where I could even go faster. We finally got it too tight and I had them undo a tire pressure adjustment when we came in for a two-tire stop. After that, it was right back to being really fast and we had a straightaway lead with less than 10 laps to go. We had the strongest car all day and we finished it off."
In your last four races at Texas you've led 437 of the 1,341 laps available (32.6 percent) and run in the top-15 for all but 89 laps. How have you been able to adapt to Texas' layout?
"I've found that 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, the groove has moved up enough over the years to where the track's a little wider, so you 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 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."
Before you raced at Texas in a stock car, you raced there in an Indy 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."
MARK CRONQUIST, head engine builder for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Explain the difference between the new R07 engine and the SB2 engine you've been running?
"With the motor we've been running, the block part of it was actually designed in 1955. We've made a few modifications to it, but it would still bolt into a 1955 Chevy Bel Air. The new block has got a lot more technology in it. It's a more updated block than what we've ever had before."
What makes the R07 better? Does it produce more horsepower? More torque? Is it more fuel efficient? Or is it just better overall?
"It's just better all over. There's a little bit of performance advantage. I don't think we've tapped into where we can go with it. We're finally more even with what Dodge and Toyota have. It kind of got us back in the same playing field, back in what's considered NASCAR's box. We were outside of the box, actually below the box. We had disadvantages and they finally let us get the same advantages that other manufacturers had over us. I don't think that we've really gotten into much of the performance part about it. A lot of it is that the shop needs just a lot less time to work on the parts and pieces of it. There's a lot of stuff in this block that's already cast into the block that we used to have to make ourselves and try to fit into our blocks. A lot of that took a lot of time and effort to do. If the performance comes, it will come because we're going to have a lot more time in our shop to work on it."
As an engine builder, do you feel that the R07 gives you a blank slate where you can really get creative?
"Absolutely. It's a whole new ballgame for us. We're going back to test some things that we used to test before. Things that we couldn't get to where we wanted them to get to, we can now do that with this block. It's a re-birth almost. It's cool to work on something new since we worked on the other one for so long, but at the same time it's in the right direction to make our jobs easier and better. The way the motor looks after 600 miles off of our dyno looks a lot better than our old SB2, so we hope that there's better durability and performance."
Has this new engine been like your version of the Car of Tomorrow? You had to develop it, but you also had to continue developing the older technology since Texas will mark this engine's debut.
"This engine now called R07 actually started out as R99 because we ran it the first time in 1999. There was an R03. There was an R05 that never got off of the chalkboard, basically. We never made that block. We had it all designed, but never made it. Then there's this one, R07. So really, this R07 has been worked on by GM teams since 1998. I've got notes in my office from the very first time we talked about this engine. It was January 1998."
How satisfying is it to see this engine develop from 1998 when there was a drawing and theories and ideas, to actually see it come to fruition and power three Joe Gibbs Racing teams at Texas?
"Really good. The awesome thing is that if you look at R99 and R07, they don't even look alike, so I'm glad NASCAR never approved it. It had some updates, but every time NASCAR didn't approve it, we went back and worked harder on it and changed more things on it. It's very satisfying that we get to run it, and it's really satisfying how the motor's been looking coming off of the dynos power-wise and durability-wise. They've been looking really good."
With all that being said, on a scale of one to 10, how nervous will you be this weekend?
"Over any other race weekend? I'll be honest. The way the things have been looking here, I'm no more nervous than I ever am at any other race track. We've got a lot of time invested here in the shop and have done some really good durability running on our dyno. The way the motors are coming off, they look good. I'm 95 percent positive. We always have that other five percent no matter what we do."
Have the drivers given any feedback as to whether they notice a difference with the new engine?
"We're not expecting the drivers to feel a lot because we have made it more like our engine style. There is a little bit of an increase in power, but not as much as we think there is in the future. Basically, the torque curve and horsepower curve is based off of our SB2 engine. We made it that way because we think we know what makes the car go around on the race tracks, and we've catered it to that. It's not like we picked up 20 horsepower and lost 10 ft. pounds of torque. We're basically the same. We're a little bit better everywhere, but it's on the same curve. We just raised the bar up a little bit."