TONY STEWART Going For One More Spot at The Glen KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Aug. 4, 2009) -- They were racing on asphalt instead of dirt. Their cars had roofs. All four of their wheels were covered by fenders. And for every left turn they made,...
Going For One More Spot at The Glen
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Aug. 4, 2009) -- They were racing on asphalt instead of dirt. Their cars had roofs. All four of their wheels were covered by fenders. And for every left turn they made, they also had to turn right. Yet here they were, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne -- two former stalwarts of the U.S. Auto Club (USAC) who were about as far away as they could get from the dirt tracks and open-wheel Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown cars they used to catapult themselves into the elite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- battling for the win on the road course at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.
Stewart had proven himself long ago as a guy who could race stock cars on road courses. His first road course win came at Sonoma in 2001 and he has since notched three other road course wins and a total of 10 top-twos in 21 career Sprint Cup starts on the series' two road courses -- Sonoma and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, site of Sunday's Heluva Good! at The Glen.
Kahne, meanwhile, was more of a surprise. The sixth-year Sprint Cup driver had never finished better than 14th in 10 road course starts, but he was able to at least match Stewart lap for lap, and in the end, beat him, even during a nail-biting string of late-race restarts where Stewart was breathing down his neck.
It was a breakthrough win for Kahne and another strong run for Stewart, who wound up second. While Stewart was genuinely happy for his USAC wingman, he left the twists and turns of Sonoma wanting more.
Stewart looks forward to the two road course events on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule. They break up the monotony of oval racing, and the different discipline allows for a different technique -- one the driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing has honed to near perfection.
As Stewart returns to road course racing with this weekend's stop at Watkins Glen, he sees opportunity. And why shouldn't he? The two-time Sprint Cup champion has not finished worse than second in his last five Sprint Cup starts at the 11-turn, 2.45-mile layout in upstate New York. And in 10 career Sprint Cup starts at The Glen, he has an average finish of 5.7.
Thwarted for the win six races ago at Sonoma, Stewart is intent on finishing one spot higher in the final road course race of the 2009 season.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You had a pretty impressive battle with Kasey Kahne for the win in June at Sonoma. Kahne proved victorious, and his win surprised a lot of people because he hadn't really shown that kind of performance in past road course races. Did he surprise you as well?
"I was surprised because I don't remember him in the past being a big road course racer. I don't remember ever having to race him at a road course race. But man, he was good. We ran the whole race together. We seemed to be on the same pit sequence during the whole day. Whether I could see him in front of me or in the mirror, we were always right around each other. When we were at the back of the pack and had tires and had to drive through the field, we were matching each other lap for lap At the end it became a shootout between us and it wasn't surprising at that point of the day, but during the day with him running the pace he was running, I wasn't used to seeing that from him. But he did it consistently all day, and obviously he's picked it up and has got it figured out."
Toward the end of the Sonoma race it was restart after restart. With the new double-file restarts, did they help or hinder you in your attempt to get past Kahne?
"He kept picking the right-side lane on the restarts, which was very smart. He made the right decision, where most of the guys were picking the left-side lane during the day. He was really the only guy that I remember that actually picked the right side, especially when it counted. He made the most of it, because it got us hung on the outside. We just kept the pressure on him and tried to force him into a mistake and he never made it. He just was very composed and solid there to where on all of those restarts we couldn't get him to bobble."
Were the double-file restarts any different at Sonoma, because back in the day you would've had lap-down cars alongside the leaders? And will the double-file restarts present any issues at Watkins Glen?
"At Sonoma, you don't get a lot of lapped traffic, so it wasn't ever really a factor, and it never really was at Watkins Glen. The double-file restarts will be more conducive at Watkins Glen than they were at Sonoma. Turn one doesn't seem to be quite as line sensitive. You can run both lines and still be in good shape."
Knowing how strong you were at Sonoma despite finishing second, can things that you learned at Sonoma carryover to Watkins Glen, especially since you were able to log another test at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) in preparation for Watkins Glen?
"We tried a package I wasn't familiar with at Sonoma. It was good enough to run second, but it wasn't good enough to win. So, we went and tested at VIR to try and sort a couple of things out. I was very pleased with our run there at Sonoma. We always run well there and we always run well at Watkins Glen, and after a second-place run at Sonoma, we're pretty confident and excited about going to Watkins Glen and getting that one extra spot."
You've won six road course races altogether -- two at Sonoma and four at The 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 amount 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 racetrack. 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 racecar, but I'm relying on the equipment and the crew a lot more at Watkins Glen."
With all those wins, do you feel you have a better opportunity to win on a road course than you do at some of the oval tracks?
"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."
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."
(The "Prelude" is the Sept. 9 Gillette Young Guns Prelude to the Dream, an all-star dirt late model race featuring many of NASCAR's top drivers at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, a half-mile clay oval owned by Stewart. Televised live on HBO Pay-Per-View, the event has raised nearly $2 million for charity. This year's event will benefit four military-themed charities -- Wounded Warrior Project, Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, Operation Homefront and Fisher House. -- Ed.)