Darlington: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART No Wins at Darlington? No Problem. HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (May 6, 2008) -- There are very few race tracks that the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits where Tony Stewart doesn't have a win. In fact, there's...

No Wins at Darlington? No Problem.

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (May 6, 2008) -- There are very few race tracks that the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits where Tony Stewart doesn't have a win. In fact, there's only two of them -- Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

Coming into the 2008 season, that number was double, as Stewart also hadn't won at either Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., or Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. But thanks to a stout No. 20 Toyota prepared by Joe Gibbs Racing's Nationwide Series crew chief Dave Rogers, Stewart whipped the field at Fontana and again at Talladega to effectively scratch the two tracks off his "to-do" list.

And after opening the 2008 Nationwide Series season with back-to-back wins at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and Fontana, Stewart came into the third race of the season at Las Vegas ready to make history.

No driver had ever won the first three Nationwide Series races of the season, but there was Stewart, with two wins already under his belt, primed to record a third at Las Vegas. His No. 20 Old Spice Toyota had led twice for 61 laps, and after his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch crashed out when a flat tire sent him into the wall, there was no other driver even close to matching the pace set by Stewart. But an accident with a lapped car on lap 137 of the 202-lap race sent Stewart hard into the SAFER Barrier along the outside retaining wall, ending his shot at a three-peat and a trip to Las Vegas' victory lane.

After finishing 10th in his next Nationwide Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Stewart came to Talladega and duplicated the effort he put forth in the season-opening race at Daytona. He won the pole and then won the race, both career-firsts for Stewart in any kind of racing division at Talladega.

With a rematch at Las Vegas not available until March 2009, the only track left for Stewart to conquer in 2008 is Darlington, site of Friday night's Diamond Hill Plywood 200.

Stewart has made only four Nationwide Series starts at Darlington, with a best finish of seventh, recorded last year when he drove for Kevin Harvick Inc. And in Sprint Cup, Stewart's best result is fourth -- notched twice -- in 15 career races.

So, why is a win at Darlington so seemingly imminent for Stewart?

Well, Joe Gibbs Racing is fielding Stewart's No. 20 Old Spice Toyota in the Nationwide Series race, and its Joe Gibbs Racing that has won the last five Nationwide Series races and seven of the 11 Nationwide Series races run this season while leading 1,027 of the 1,918 laps possible (53.5 percent). Oh, and the No. 20 team is the two-time and reigning champion of the Diamond Hill Plywood 200, having swept the pole and the race the last two years while leading a combined 117 laps.

Pardon Stewart if he finds a dual use for his No. 20 Old Spice Toyota at Darlington. Apparently, it not only wins races, but serves as a gigantic Sharpie for which he puts a checkmark next to items on his "to-do" list.

Tony Stewart -- Driver, No. 20 Old Spice NASCAR Nationwide Series Toyota Camry at Darlington

How much have your strong runs in the Nationwide Series served as a confidence booster for what you're trying to accomplish in the Sprint Cup Series?

"It's huge, especially if you're having a bad weekend on the Sprint Cup side. It's easy to start questioning what's going on. When you can go out there and have a good run in the Nationwide car, it helps you have that confidence as a driver. If the driver doesn't have confidence going into the Cup race, then it takes a lot to get up front. We've had good cars everywhere we've been with the Nationwide side. We've had good cars on the Cup side. Even if it's a little bit off, when you've had that good day on the Nationwide side, it just gives you that much more confidence and that much more of a boost the next day."

Since Darlington has been repaved, will running both the Nationwide Series race and the Sprint Cup race be a benefit this weekend? Because even though there's not much correlation between the two cars, will the extra track time prove worthwhile?

"If everything is going all right with both cars and it's not a cluster, yeah, it's a great opportunity. If it's a cluster, then it's a bad opportunity to be running both series. You can potentially learn about what the track's characteristics are as far as how the balance of the car is going to change through the course of the race. It could certainly be an advantage this week."

Given the fact that you don't have to worry about points, has competing in the Nationwide Series been like running in NASCAR in its purest form -- where you're there just to win?

"You're still racing for points for the team. The team's going to run every race, so even though you're not behind the steering wheel every race, it's not a go-for-broke attitude. You're still point racing. Not on your behalf, but on the team's behalf. That part you still take pride in. As far as winning, it's still your personal goal as a driver to go out and win, and that doesn't change no matter what you're driving. If it's just a team that's only running a part-time schedule, then you can go with that go-for-broke attitude. But we've got a team that obviously finished second in the points last year and has a shot to win it this year. You want to go out and race and be conscious of that every time you're in the car for them."

Why is a win at Darlington a feather in any driver's cap?

"Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day. New pavement, old pavement -- I really don't think it matters. You don't see a lot of guys who have a lot of success there. You see only a handful of guys who religiously run well there. That just shows you how difficult Darlington is to get a handle on. If you can have a good day and win there, it's a track that's like winning at Bristol (Tenn.). It's the same type of feeling -- knowing that you conquered something that's very hard to obtain."

Chassis No. 2041: This chassis has the most race experience out of any chassis currently in Joe Gibbs Racing's Nationwide Series stable. Friday night's Diamond Hill Plywood 200 will be the 46th race for Chassis No. 2041, dating back to its debut in the 2003 Tropicana Twister 300 at Chicagoland Speedway with former JGR driver Mike Bliss at the controls. While this chassis made its debut in 2003, it didn't get its first win until Denny Hamlin brought the car to victory lane in the 2006 Diamond Hill Plywood 200 at Darlington. Hamlin also brought this same chassis to victory lane one year later in the same event at Darlington. In addition to the wins at Darlington, Hamlin drove No. 2041 to poles at Darlington, Dover (Del.) International Speedway and Chicagoland in 2007. Chassis No. 2041's most recent race -- and only race thus far in 2008 -- came at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in March, where Hamlin started second and led the first 37 laps before a punctured right front tire on lap 70 forced an unscheduled pit stop that put him three laps down.

-credit: jgr

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Drivers Tony Stewart , Mike Bliss , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing