Watkins Glen: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Victorious Maximus ATLANTA (Aug. 5, 2008) -- Tony Stewart has been called many things during his 10-year career in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and this weekend he'll take on the role of Centurion as he prepares for ...

Victorious Maximus

ATLANTA (Aug. 5, 2008) -- Tony Stewart has been called many things during his 10-year career in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and this weekend he'll take on the role of Centurion as he prepares for Sunday's Centurion Boats at The Glen road course race at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.

A Centurion was a commander in the Roman army, and while Stewart has no plans to sack the town of Watkins Glen, he does plan to lead the Joe Gibbs Racing empire to a fifth victory at the 2.45-mile, 11-turn road course in Upstate New York.

Stewart is responsible for the four previous wins, and the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota returns to The Glen as the defending race winner of the Centurion Boats at The Glen.

Win number four came in dramatic fashion, as Stewart was in second-place and dogging race-leader Jeff Gordon as the two took the white flag to begin their final tour of the circuit. Gordon then spun in the fast, sweeping right-hand turn one to hand the lead over to Stewart, who then held off a hard-charging Carl Edwards before Edwards spun off-track on the final lap as Stewart coasted to victory.

A fifth win would put Stewart in a league of his own. No driver in the track's 60-year history has ever won five races. Not in NASCAR. Not in Formula One. Not in sports cars. Not in Indy cars.

Even four wins puts Stewart in elite company. At 2 p.m. EDT on Friday, Stewart will be inducted into the track's Legends of The Glen, joining such racing icons as Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Al Holbert and Mark Martin, as the Driver of the Decade from 1998 to 2007. In that time, whenever Stewart wasn't winning, he was up front, finishing outside the top-10 on only two occasions. He also started outside the top-five only three times and never worse than 11th. He's also led a total of 190 laps of the 812 laps available in his nine previous starts (23.4 percent) at The Glen, with a lap completion rate of 100 percent.

Of Stewart's 32 career Sprint Cup victories, six have come at road courses. Stewart's most recent win came 35 races ago at The Glen, and he's in the midst of the longest winless streak of his illustrious Sprint Cup career.

But after finishing second last Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, the two-time Sprint Cup champion may have some karma to go along with his stout road racing resume. In the last two races, the driver who finished second the race before went on to win the next race he competed in. Jimmie Johnson was second at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., and then won the series' next race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Edwards was second at Indy and then found victory lane a week later at Pocono.

Winning is what Stewart does, and with recent history and his body of road course work on full display this weekend at The Glen, expect to see Stewart and Big Orange -- and not the Big Orange from nearby Syracuse (N.Y.) University -- up front and in command.

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

You're going for your fifth win at Watkins Glen. No driver, in any series, has ever won five races at The Glen. Does that kind of historical perspective resonate with you?

"It's always cool to be a part of history. When A.J. Foyt was the first to win four Indy 500s -- that was huge. To imagine all the different types of racing that's been at Watkins Glen and know that we've got a shot to do something that hasn't been done before is definitely a cool opportunity."

With six road course wins -- four at The Glen and two at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. -- do you feel you have a better opportunity to win on a road course than you do at some of the other oval tracks you visit?

"It's definitely a place I feel like we've got the potential to win, even before we make a single lap."

What is it about you and road courses? Because it's such a different discipline, do you go in and just throw caution to the wind, or is it a little more involved than that?

"I've just always liked it. I won a national championship racing go-karts on road courses, so the concept of what it took to win races on road courses wasn't totally unknown to me, but driving cars with suspension, and definitely driving cars that you had to shift, that's something that came relatively easy to me, and still comes easy to me as far as knowing how to synchronize the gears without having to use the help of the clutch. Even in the sports cars that I've driven with guys who have driven road courses all their life, I've gotten out of the car and the crew has torn the gearboxes apart and said that the dog rings in my transmission look better than when those guys are done with a transmission. There's just something about the shifting side of it that's been really natural to me, and it's fun. I like having a different discipline to race on. I like having the opportunity to do something twice a year that we don't get a shot at doing very often. I take the same amount of pride that someone like Ron Fellows or Scott Pruett does when they come into a road course race. I take that same pride in running well that they do in these cars. I don't look at it from the standpoint that it's a negative weekend. I look at it as a positive, that it's something we enjoy and I feel like that gives us a leg up on most of the guys we race with at these tracks."

It seems like when you have an outcome that you're not exactly happy with at Sonoma, that you come into Watkins Glen even more determined to perform well. Is that true?

"I always feel like we're always a factor at both race tracks, but if you look at the history it seems like if we don't win at Sonoma, then we normally will follow it up with a really good run at Watkins Glen. I feel like you look at the records and you look over the last 10 years, we're definitely a factor. We're batting better than .400 at Watkins Glen. In nine years, we've won four races. If you can't be counted as a factor after that, I don't know when they do count you as a factor. I feel that we're the guys that every time we go there that everybody has to pay attention to us in order to win. Now, there are times we don't win, obviously, but we're still in the hunt every time and got a shot."

How much do you look forward to racing on the road courses?

"I love the two road courses. It's nice because it kind of breaks up the monotony of the season. We do the same thing every week and it's nice to have two road course races thrown in the mix that give us a chance to do something a little bit off-center for all of us. It's kind of like the 'Prelude' with no dirt added, unless you drive off, which a lot of us do. We still get a dirt aspect in it, I guess."

Do you run a road course race differently than you run an oval, in that when you run an oval there seems to be a large swath of time in the middle part of the race where you conserve and plan your strategy for the last 100 miles? Are you able to conserve during any part of a road course race, or do you have to go hard every lap?

"You have to play the race strategy out. It's such a long track that guys don't go a lap down as easily as they do on an oval. You have to run as hard as you have to in order to stay ahead of everybody. And when you get yourself in a position where you can be easy on your equipment, especially the tires, you take that opportunity, because if it is a long run, a lot of times that'll work out in your favor. If your car's not right, you can't just keep pushing it, or else you'll drive the tires right off of it."

You and Jeff Gordon have been the ones to beat on the road courses, for if it's not you winning, it's typically been him. And your battle last year at Watkins Glen was emblematic of that, for you led three times for 20 laps and he led three times for 51 laps before going off course while you pressured him for the lead. Do you feel there's mutual respect for what you two have accomplished on the road courses?

"I think we had a better battle at Sonoma three years ago. Jeff broke a transmission that day, but we had a good battle up front to where neither one of us were saving anything at that point. We both felt the importance of being in the lead and showing the other one that we had a better car at that point. But that's what's fun. It's fun to race Jeff. I mean, when you have a day like we had last year at The Glen and the laps that we were ahead of Jeff we could drive away from him a little bit -- it makes you feel good, and you know you're outrunning the best that's been. Any time that you can run with Jeff like that, you have the confidence to race with him. We never had any close moments with each other that day. We raced each other with respect and that's what makes racing with Jeff fun. You know that when you outrun Jeff that you did an excellent job. You're not going to back into a win with Jeff out there.

"There's mutual respect. There's more to this racing thing than just winning races and trophies and prize money. There's a day we all quit driving and it's about the relationships you make along the way, and you're going to have battles and rivalries with guys that are strong competitors with you, and you know, that's to be expected. But at the same time, there's a huge admiration and respect when you race guys like that, too. I think we both realize that."

People always seem to make a big deal out of the road course "ringers" that tend to show up at the two road course races on the Sprint Cup schedule. But after over two straight decades of road course racing in NASCAR -- and you specifically having nine years of road course racing in NASCAR -- is there such a thing anymore as a road course ringer?

"No, not at all. You look at guys who have run really well on the road courses the last couple of years and it's Jeff Gordon, myself and Kevin Harvick. There hasn't been a road course ringer to win a race yet, so I don't know why everybody uses that in the equation other than it gives them something different to write about. You still have to beat the same guys that have been winning, and all you have to do is look at the stats and the stats will tell you who you've got to beat there."

You've won four of the last eight road course races and six altogether -- two at Sonoma and four at Watkins Glen. Does success at one venue transfer to the other?

"The two tracks, while both road courses, are still pretty different. At Watkins Glen you don't have to finesse the throttle near as much as you do at Sonoma. When you get the car turned, you can get in the gas and then stay in the gas. Watkins Glen is much faster than Sonoma. I think there are the same amounts of passing opportunities, but because of the speeds that you're able to run at The Glen, brakes become a much bigger factor than I think they are at Sonoma. It's pretty much a horsepower track. It's horsepower and aerodynamics just like it is anywhere else we go. It just happens to be in the form of a road course. Sonoma has a lot less grip in the race track. You have to really be careful with the throttle there, and that puts more of the race in the driver's hands. If anything, Sonoma is probably more technical than Watkins Glen because there's hardly any time where you get a chance to rest. You're always either shifting or accelerating or braking or turning or doing something. At Watkins Glen, at least on the frontstretch and on the backstretch, there are three straightaways where you get a little bit of time to take a break. Watkins Glen seems to be more in the crew's hands and the engine builder's hands. Obviously, there's still a job that I need to do in the race car, but I'm relying on the equipment and the crew a lot more at Watkins Glen."

Have you and The Home Depot Racing Team found a successful road racing package that no one else has, or is it a matter of all of the team's hard work paying off?

"I don't think we've put any more emphasis on the road courses than we have any other race, but I've got a crew chief (Greg Zipadelli) who is very versatile and we have good people that work really hard to make the best road course cars we can. It's just the classic case of Zippy and I working so well together that we can always get where we need to be. He gets the car driving really good for me and he can make that car do what I want it to do. Then when I'm on the track, I'm probably one of the most comfortable drivers on the race track. And at that point, I can go out and do the job. I think a lot of it is due to Zippy because he puts as much emphasis on the road course races as he does at Indy or anywhere else. Even though there are only two road courses on the schedule, it shows how dedicated Zippy is as a crew chief to every discipline we race at."

A lot is being made out of the fact that you haven't won yet this year. Is it as big of a deal as it seems?

"It's not like we're not running well, because we are. We've just had some circumstances that haven't gone our way. You'll have that. We tend to be a late-blooming team anyhow. We plan on doing the same thing we do every week. We're not changing our approach. Every week our goal is to win the race, and that's not going to change. That's how we've won two championships. If we go out and win the race, the points take care of themselves. It's always been that way, and it always will be that way. We'll try to go out and win the race each weekend, and at the end of the day we'll look at the point standings and see where we're at. If we don't win, we'll try to get as many points as possible."

Does the Chase format make a season like the one you're having less stressful, because even if you have a few bad races, as long as you're in the top-12 in points and you win at the right time, it all works out, right?

"The first 26 races are really relevant except for how many wins you've got. That's the only thing that those first 26 weeks count for and that's getting you the bonus points. Other than that, as long as you're in the top-12, it doesn't matter whether you're first or 12th. As long as you're in there, that's what it takes to get you in the show. And then you need to be good from there. But it's not a life or death situation if you have a bad day as long as after 26 races you're in that top-12 group. If you have one bad race and it puts you 16 points out like it did us back in 2006, then it is bad. It just depends on each individual team's scenario. But we're not sending the space shuttle to outer space with this format. It's pretty easy to figure out. Twelve guys get in and they have the same amount of points and the guys that won races gets 10 extra bonus points for every race they won. It's easy to do the math. It's easy for everybody to follow."

-credit: jgr

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Ron Fellows , Jimmie Johnson , Jackie Stewart , Al Holbert , Carl Edwards , Graham Hill , A.J. Foyt