Watkins Glen: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Road Scholar ATLANTA (Aug. 10, 2004) - Tony Stewart enjoys driving different types of race cars in different types of environments. What makes it even more enjoyable for him is his penchant for winning. Stock cars, Indy ...

Watkins Glen: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart
Road Scholar

ATLANTA (Aug. 10, 2004) - Tony Stewart enjoys driving different types of race cars in different types of environments. What makes it even more enjoyable for him is his penchant for winning. Stock cars, Indy cars, sprint cars, sports cars - you name it - Stewart has driven it, and with the exception of sports cars, won in it. Whether the tracks were flat, paved ovals or tight, dirt bullrings, Stewart has showcased his versatility by successfully racing anything that was meant to go fast.

And while there are only two road courses on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule - Watkins Glen (N.Y.) and Sonoma (Calif.) - Stewart relishes them for the simple fact that they're different. It also doesn't hurt that he has excelled on road courses in the past.

In 11 career Nextel Cup starts at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, Stewart has a pole, two wins, a second, three other top-10s and only one finish lower than 15th. One of those wins came at The Glen in 2002, where Stewart started third before picking the lead from road course ace Robby Gordon on lap 25. In all, Stewart led three times for 34 laps - the most of any driver in the 90-lap race - including the final 19 to secure the 15th of what is now an 18-win career.

And outside of Nextel Cup, Stewart has continued to demonstrate his road racing abilities in sports cars. He has twice competed in the Rolex 24 Hour race at Daytona (Fla.), and almost won it this year, leading 355 of 526 laps with co-drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Andy Wallace to hold a commanding five-lap advantage before mechanical problems less than 20 minutes short of the finish ended their shot at victory. Stewart teamed with Wallace again at Daytona back in July for the Paul Revere 250, where the duo finished a solid third. They will race together once more Friday afternoon, where after qualifying his #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, Stewart will step into a #20 of a different sort - the #20 Pontiac Crawford for Howard-Boss Motorsports. There, Stewart will try to fill one of the last remaining vacancies on his list of career highlights - a win in a sports car.

You tested Aug. 3 at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) in preparation for Watkins Glen. How did it go?

"It was just good to go to VIR for the day, and if nothing else, get back in the mode of downshifting, upshifting and all the other techniques of road course racing. Obviously, things are different on a road course. You don't use the clutch when you're shifting. You're using a heel and toe braking technique. And after running a bunch of ovals, it's important to get used to doing those things again."

How similar is VIR to Watkins Glen?

"It's fairly close. It's a nice facility. It has a really long front straightaway that has a 180-degree hairpin turn. You're in second gear when you get there, so it simulates going into turn 11 at Sonoma. And it kind of simulates going into turn one at Watkins Glen. You can learn a lot from the braking aspect there. Basically, when it comes to turning left and right, whatever makes it turn left and right at VIR is what'll make it turn left and right anywhere you go."

Does road racing require more finesse or more manhandling depending on where you are on the race track?

"Track position dictates where and when you need to finesse and when you need to just go at it. Track position is a big deal anywhere these days, but it's definitely a big deal at Watkins Glen. It's hard to pass there from the standpoint that there are a couple of good braking zones where you can pass. But the thing is, everyone is so even that you've got be able to out drag race them down the straightaways after you out brake them going into a corner. Getting the car to turn and handle is a big part of it, but you still have to be able to run well down the straightaway. At Sonoma, you've got to get your car handling or else it doesn't really matter how much horsepower you've got. Handling well at Watkins Glen is an important factor, but it seems like horsepower is a much bigger part of the equation versus Sonoma."

Does success at Sonoma translate into success at Watkins Glen?

"It doesn't seem to be. At Watkins Glen you don't have to finesse the throttle near as much. 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. 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."

How does Watkins Glen differ from Sonoma?

"Watkins Glen is really a whole new ballgame. The difference between Watkins Glen and Sonoma is that Watkins Glen is a more technical race track. The corners are a lot faster, and if you break your momentum just a little bit, it shows up big time. Right now, we're in a string of tracks where momentum is a big factor. It seems like forward bite is more of an issue at Sonoma because you've got to work so hard to get the car to turn. At Watkins Glen, you try to do as much as you can to try to keep your momentum up and not break it in any way."

Where are the passing zones at Watkins Glen?

"At the end of the backstretch before you come into the Bus Stop - that's a spot. And then coming back toward the pit area - the Esses right before the start/finish line, and going into turn one."

Is a race at Watkins Glen more physical than a race at Sonoma?

"No, I don't believe so. You've got a couple of long straightaways at Watkins Glen to let your body relax, stretch out your arms and catch your breath. I feel like I have more opportunities to relax a little bit at Watkins Glen."

Drivers will complain of "wheel hop" when driving road courses. What is "wheel hop" and how do you prevent it?

"Most of the time it's during the downshift period in the braking zones, where the rear wheels lock up and literally hop down the track. The worst spot at The Glen where that can happen is at the end of the front straightaway entering turn one just because you're carrying so much speed. But I'm not going to give up my secrets as to how to prevent it."

How would you describe your road racing style - refined, banzai or somewhere in between?

"Somewhere in between. There are times when you have to banzai and other times when you need to take care of your car. I'd like to think that when I'm in the part of the race where I need to be taking care of my car - I do that. And when it comes time to banzai it at the end of the race - I'm ready to do that too."

From your rookie year in 1999 - where you attended the Bob Bondurant Driving School before your first road course race in a stock car - to where you are now, can you describe how you've become one of the better road course racers on the circuit?

"Chris Cook was my instructor at Bondurant, and Chris spent a lot of time working with me individually. He had spent a little bit of time in a Cup car and understood what my challenges were and what I needed to get used to. Having him as an instructor was definitely an advantage. He just taught me a lot of things that gave me a really good base of how to approach road course racing. And as time went on, I've learned some techniques that I like a little better and actually help me. It's just a matter of trying to find stuff that you like and stuff that's going to work for you."

With seemingly half the field having a diverse racing background, is there such a thing as a road course ringer anymore?

"Yes and no. There are road course guys who are good at road course racing but they're not used to running stock cars. But there are guys who are used to running stock cars who aren't used to running road courses. But if you look at the history of road course racing, the guys who come from a road racing background seem to be able to get into any kind of car and do fairly well. So I think they do have an advantage, but maybe not as much as they had five or six years ago."

Considering your recent history of racing sports cars on road courses, do you consider yourself a ringer?

"I don't think so. If you look at how many Nextel Cup races I've run on road courses (11), there are a lot of veterans who have run two or three times the amount of road course races I have. I don't think you can call me a ringer. I think you can call me a guy who is solid on the road courses because we've won at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, but I don't think you can call me a ringer."

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