ATLANTA (June 28, 2001) - The July 7 Pepsi 400 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway marks the beginning of a 20-race marathon for drivers and teams in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. But before one looks too far into the future, the racer's ...
ATLANTA (June 28, 2001) - The July 7 Pepsi 400 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway marks the beginning of a 20-race marathon for drivers and teams in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. But before one looks too far into the future, the racer's adage of one race at a time needs to apply.
The night race at Daytona is round number 17 on the 36-race Winston Cup schedule, as well as the third of four restrictor plate races facing competitors in 2001.
For Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot/Jurassic Park III Pontiac, the Pepsi 400 not only means points but also a potential $1 million bonus from Winston if he should net his 11th career Winston Cup victory under the lights at Daytona.
By virtue of his third-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.), Stewart became a No Bull 5 competitor at Daytona, joining Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte. All will have a chance at a million dollar payday, but should Stewart take home the big check, it will cap a successful education in the nuances of restrictor plate racing.
Two years ago at Daytona during Speedweeks you claimed that you didn't know what you were doing when it came to restrictor plate racing. Yet, you've scored five top-10s in the 10 restrictor plate races that you've run in your career and you finished second this year at Talladega (Ala.). Do you feel like you know what you're doing now?
"It's the same thing I say ever year, every time we go back to a restrictor plate race we learn more and more. I'm not sure that I've learned everything that I need to know yet, but at the same time, I'm a lot better than I was."
Because restrictor plate racing tends to put machine over man, does it mean as much to win a restrictor plate race?
"A Winston Cup win is a Winston Cup win. Winning a race is winning a race. I don't care whether it's in a go-kart or a Winston Cup car. A win is important to anybody. So I don't care if my engine has a restrictor plate, runs on methanol or is made by Briggs & Stratton. If I win I'm happy."
Do the lights at Daytona accentuate your feeling of speed from within the car?
"Not so much from the inside of The Home Depot Pontiac. It looks a lot faster from the grandstands, I know that. It's just a lot of fun. I like racing at night. Being able to run at a track that size at night is a pretty neat feeling."
What do you like best about night racing at Daytona?
"The fact that I'm nocturnal, basically. I mean, the best hours of the day for me are when the sun goes down. I'm a lot sharper and a lot wider awake at night."
How do you go about picking a drafting partner during the race?
"Whoever you're around at the time is your drafting partner. Last year, I thought I was going to run with a certain group of guys, but we ended up lapping about half of them. You never know. You've just got to take what it gives you. The important thing is that you have to have people to draft with. I don't think it's a situation where you pick who you're going to be with, it's just whoever is around you at that time."
Much has been made about driver safety and devices such as the HANS device since we were last at Daytona. What do you make of it all?
"I think a lot of the media has blown it out of proportion lately. The media has an uncanny ability to stir the pot, so to speak. What has resulted is a lot of fear in the fan's minds, which is unfair to them and the race car drivers and race teams. Everyone associated with building our race cars and the safety equipment that goes with them does a really good job. People like Bill Simpson, who stepped out of the race car to dedicate his life to making sure that other drivers were as safe as possible inside their car cars. People like Bill Simpson didn't just pop up this year, they've been here for a long time. Improved safety isn't a new concept. Every year, everyone tries as best they can to make their products better. Simpson tries to make his helmets better, his firesuits better, his seatbelts better. People like Bill continue to make our sport a safer sport, but the reality is that we're in a dangerous sport. There's no doubt about it. If you look back in the '40s and '50s, it seemed like there was a driver killed every week somewhere across the country inside a race car. Now it's not near as frequent as it was back then. It's nice to think that there's a light at the end of the tunnel to where we could make this sport where a driver wouldn't ever get injured. But I think that if that ever came to be, our sport would change drastically. Drivers would drive way over their head, because they knew that if they weren't going to get hurt they would drive like you drive in a video game. I crash a lot when I play video games, but I know that when I hit something it's not going to hurt. I think you have to have that element of danger present to keep our sport the way it is.
"I think there are pros and cons to the HANS device. At the same time, I'm very proud of what Dr. (Robert) Hubbard has started. He's really started a wave in the way people look at driver safety from a head injury standpoint. We've got to start somewhere, and I think the HANS device is a good start. But from my standpoint, I'm trying to look at what he's done and take it a step further to see if I can get the cons taken care of and make it better. No one in the safety industry is really competing against one another. They're all just working together as a whole to make this sport a safer sport for everyone."
How difficult is it to focus on racing after a tragedy such as the one we had in this year's Daytona 500?
"Unfortunately, I've had to deal with that a lot during my racing career. I had Scott Brayton get killed during my rookie year at Indianapolis, and I lost two other good friends in Kenny Irwin and Dale Earnhardt. I've seen Robbie Stanley get killed in a Sprint car, Rich Vogler too. It's something that, unfortunately, is not a new topic to me. But with every one of those drivers, I know their spirit and I know that they would like us to go on and do what we've been doing. I think that's the one thing that enables you to go on after a tragedy and do your job. We all know it's a part of what we do. Knowing that doesn't make it any easier to accept tragedy when it happens, but I guess it makes it a little easier to continue on knowing that that's what we risk as drivers.
"I think that when it comes time to sit in the race car and strap in before the race itself, it (tragedy) doesn't enter my mind. I feel like I'm so focused on what I'm doing, that whatever happened during the week, whether it was good or bad, when it comes time to get in the car during the race, I forget about everything else except what's going on in that race. In all reality, I'm able to put it out of my mind just for that day, but when you get out of that car it comes right back in your mind and you think about it for weeks. It isn't something that you just forget when the race ends. Those memories linger on for a while."
MARK ROBERTSON, spotter for the #20 Home Depot Pontiac:
How difficult is it to spot during the night race at Daytona?
"It's not too bad. It's not much more difficult than spotting there during the day. I mean, it's kind of hard to spot there all the time. But actually, I guess it's a little easier during the night because you can pick the cars out better. The different colors on the cars are more distinguishable during the night then they are during the day. All the colors of the cars just kind of blend into one pack during the day. The Home Depot car looks like every car out there. You'd think that its orange paint would make it stand out, but it's just the opposite. It blends in with any other close color around it. So, sometimes it looks dark and sometimes it looks light. It's not always the easiest color to see."
Do the shadows that the cars cast off of each other make it tougher to judge distances?
"Sometimes when the cars are passing through the lights on the backstretch, the shine off the cars posts a bit of a glare. But it's hard to spot at Daytona anytime. The racing gets pretty wide and the pack can get 30-40 cars deep. It's not easy to distinguish any of the cars from each other. You've got to pick your spots on the race track so that you don't lose contact with the car that you're working with, especially on the backstretch. With all the lights down on the inside of the race track, if something happens and there's a slow car or someone is stopped down on the inside of the backstretch, you can't really see it because of the glare of the lights."