Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home
Depot Pontiac Grand Prix in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, heads to
Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for the DieHard 500 after a strong
performance last Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. The Columbus,
Ind., native finished the 500-lap event sixth after having started deep in the
field at 37th. He now stands 10th in the championship point standings.
Statistically, Talladega is a fine place for Stewart to continue his
front-running ways. He finished fifth in last year's DieHard 500, and followed
up that performance in October with a sixth-place finish in the Winston
500. With Joe Gibbs Racing-made horsepower at his disposal, Stewart
looks to improve upon those marks.
Is racing at Talladega different from racing at Daytona? How different are
the two tracks?
"The handling of The Home Depot Pontiac isn't as important at Talladega
as it is at Daytona. Last fall, the last lap I ran around Talladega I ran
four-wide the whole lap. You don't see much three-wide racing at Daytona
let alone four-wide. Talladega is the most nerve-wracking experience that
you can go through as a driver, especially if you're about 15th in the pack
with around five (laps) to go. There are so many things going on around
you that…like I said, I was four-wide and I was on the outside of that
four-wide pack. So, there was me and a concrete wall, and the concrete
wall was about a foot away from me, and the guy on the inside of me was
about three or four inches away from me. I can only imagine what the
middle two guys felt like. You've got cars behind you, you've got cars in
front of you, you've got cars beside you, and you're running 195 mph. It's
nerve-wracking. It's like being in bumper-to-bumper traffic running at 195
mph. If one person makes a mistake, then you're all crashing. It makes for
a very long day. You just can't seem to get settled down and get in a
rhythm. It's not about what you and your car can do, it's about what
everybody else is doing to you and your car."
Are there certain cars, regardless of their make, that you're able to draft
better with than other cars?
"The basics are pretty much the same, but there are different cars that for
some reason, when you get hooked up with them, you run better or you
run worse with them. They can be different manufacturers. They can be the
same manufacturers. There's no rhyme or reason for it. But there are some
cars where they're driving a little bit freer and your cars are the same
speed that you just draft better with. There are just some cars that you can
work with better than others."
With each restrictor plate race that you've run, have you gained more
confidence in your abilities to run in the draft? In what way?
"Well, it's a pretty humbling experience. Every practice session you go out
there and you realize how little you know about it and how much more
there really is to know. But the hard thing is that you can't go to a test
session to learn that. You can't get 40 cars to go to a test with you so you
can learn what you need to learn. It's trial and error in the practice
sessions and in the race. You just try to pick up as much as you can. The
important thing for me is that I try to learn something at each restrictor
plate race so that I'm better for the next one."
Patience is an obvious virtue on the short tracks, but how important is it at
a restrictor plate track?
"It's the gospel, basically. There are a lot of times when you think you can
pull out and pass, but if you do, once you get there you realize that you
can't pass. It makes it real critical that you take your time and that you
don't get caught up in trying to make a move too fast. Just stay in line, and
sometimes you'll have more patience than 20 other guys."
What's the biggest thing you've learned about restrictor plate racing?
"There have been so many times where I've thought that I had a big enough
run on a guy and I thought some guys would go with me, that I pulled out.
But I quickly found out that I would've been better off just staying in line. I
stay in line a lot more now than I used to. Every time someone pulls out,
they get shuffled to the back and you end up gaining a spot. It's a process
that's tough to figure out. There's only about four guys who have figured it
out and really know how to do it right - Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Dale
Jarrett and Bobby Labonte."
How do you think NASCAR's revision to the shock rule at restrictor plate
tracks will effect you at Talladega?
"It'll probably make the cars more comfortable to drive, which will be a big
benefit to everybody because we'll all feel more comfortable running around
each other. I think NASCAR is doing a great job of letting us do that. I
know they want to slow things down a bit, but the cars were very
uncomfortable to drive. Now they've given us some stability back to the
Do you feel that the disparity in downforce numbers between what the
Pontiacs have in relation to what the Fords and Chevrolets have will be
highlighted at Talladega?
"Oh yeah. The Chevrolets ought to be stout there because they're
essentially running a late model body with the nose being stuck out as far
as it is. We're just kind of stuck with what we've got. We need to do the
best we can with what we have."
RONNY CROOKS, shock specialist on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac
What will the revised shock rule allow you to do at Talladega that you
weren't able to do at Daytona in February?
"It'll help us improve the grip and help the balance, which will make the
driver more comfortable."
What are you able to do with the actual building of the shocks now?
"The mechanics of it will be like what we had last year."
How do you balance having to build your own front shocks while having
your rear shocks be spec shots given to you by NASCAR?
"It's a compromise. But we've had more trouble on the front end of The
Home Depot Pontiac than we've had on the rear end. So, it'll help us in that
respect. We should be able to race better, but for qualifying, it's probably
just a Band-Aid for the problem."