ATLANTA (Sept. 4, 2001) - Tony Stewart once joked that he never realized the sun rose until his rookie year in 1999. A late sleeper by nature, Stewart's proclivity to sleep until noon was derailed by NASCAR's mandatory rookie meetings held the ...
ATLANTA (Sept. 4, 2001) - Tony Stewart once joked that he never realized the sun rose until his rookie year in 1999. A late sleeper by nature, Stewart's proclivity to sleep until noon was derailed by NASCAR's mandatory rookie meetings held the Friday morning of each and every NASCAR Winston Cup Series weekend.
"Every time I woke up, the sun was already in the sky. So I just figured that's where it started," joshed Stewart. "But those rookie meeting were always so early - like nine or something. After going to a few of 'em, I finally found out that the sun actually rose."
While morning may not be Stewart's favorite time of the day, nighttime certainly is. To prove this, simply check out Stewart's statistics whenever the Cuppers race under the lights.
There are five night races held each season. Both the spring and fall races at Richmond (Va.) are night races, while the majority of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) is run under the lights. The August race at Bristol (Tenn.) is perhaps the most famous night race, and the July race at Daytona (Fla.) is the newest night race, having held its first nocturnal event in October of 1998.
With 14 night races under his belt since joining the series in 1999, Stewart comes to Saturday night's race at Richmond with an average finish of seventh whenever the sky turns black and the lights turn on. Included in that number are three wins (two of which Stewart recorded at Richmond), seven top-fives and 11 top-10s.
In 2001 alone, Stewart's night racing resume is impressive. It includes a win at Richmond in May, followed by a third-place run at Charlotte two weeks later. Daytona's July race should've yielded a sixth-place finish, but due to a NASCAR penalty, it turned into a 26th place finish. And Stewart's third night race win came just two weeks ago at Bristol.
With the fifth and final night race of the season looming this Saturday at Richmond, Stewart and Co. look to become the first team to sweep a pair of races at a track this season.
What do you like best about night racing?
"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."
Do the track conditions at Richmond change much between the time when you race there in the spring and when you return in the fall?
"Of all the tracks that we go to, Richmond is one where the track changes quite a bit. To me, it's like going back to dirt track days, where you look at the race track and you look at the conditions and you adjust accordingly. The approach you used at the spring race at Richmond may not be the same way you go about setting up the car for the fall race. But overall, the approach you do use still is geared toward making the car rotate through the center of the corner and going forward when you get on the gas without spinning the tires. Those principles stay the same. But how you drive the track from a driver's standpoint is a little different, and that's what's fun about it. It's still a challenge for the crews, but it's a challenge for the drivers to figure out where they want to be on the race track."
Richmond seemed to be a track that you felt very comfortable with right from the start. Why was that?
"Having run the (USAC) Silver Crown car and the Midget there in the past didn't hurt. It was just one of those tracks that I liked. It's the only three-quarter mile track we run on all year, but for some reason, it's a size that I really enjoy running on."
What are some of the other types of cars you've raced at Richmond?
"The Silver Crown car, the Midget and a Busch car. I ran second in a midget to Kenny Irwin there and I think I ran fifth or something in the Silver Crown car, but I can't remember what the years were off-hand."
How did those past experiences help you when you first visited Richmond in a Winston Cup car?
"I knew where all the bumps were on the race track. It was just a matter of adjusting to what the The Home Depot Pontiac wanted - knowing how to drive the car and letting it do what it wanted to do, instead of trying to force it into something that it didn't want to do."
Is Richmond similar to any other tracks that you've raced on in your career?
"It just reminded me of some of the shorter tracks that I've run. It had kind of the same feel that quarter-mile tracks did with some of the other cars that I've run with. It wasn't a big drastic change. It was like Phoenix the first time I went there. I hadn't been to a one-mile oval but once in my life, but when I got onto Phoenix, I adjusted and adapted to it really quickly. It was a place where I became very comfortable right away. I had that same feeling when I went to Richmond for the first time with The Home Depot car. I think every driver has a track that they go to where they get that same feeling. There are just some places that you go to where you adjust, and it really suits your driving style."
Because you've won there, do you have higher expectations going into Richmond, or do you treat it as just another points-paying race?
"I think that with the way our season is going, we have to look at it like it's just another race. But it's going to be hard to not have in the back of our mind that because we've won there twice we should expect to run well. I'm not sure we'd go in there and expect to win again. I think we've got a shot to win, but to go there and expect it - we don't do that. But we do expect to run well and hopefully contend for the win."
September means trips to Richmond, Loudon (N.H.) and Dover (Del.) before heading to Martinsville (Va.) in October - all tracks where you've won. Would you say that this part of the schedule is the most fun for you?
"They're all tracks where we've typically run well in the past. To have three or four of them right there together - that could be a powerful month for us if we can get on a roll. But we've had some curve balls thrown at us with some rules changes that we didn't have last year, and that's making us rethink a lot of our approaches at some of these tracks."