ATLANTA, Ga. (Oct. 4, 2006) – Six times Tony Stewart has finished second at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series has watched as Bobby Hamilton Sr., Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Jimmie Johnson have taken Talladega’s checkered flag just ahead of him.
And while Stewart is always determined to win and typically treats anything less than first with a bit of disdain, his run of runner-ups – which includes the past three Talladega races – leaves Stewart with a sense of satisfaction.
So much about racing at Talladega and at its restrictor plate cousin in Daytona (Fla.) is out of a driver’s control. To go fast and advance toward the front, drivers must use their 3,400-pound racecars and the air they collectively split to draft off one another. By using the vacuum created by the car cutting through the air in front of them, a driver can tuck up behind a fellow driver, and then, when the moment is right, slingshot by him with the momentum gained from riding in his wake.
It’s an art, one unknown to Renoir and Degas but practiced fervently by guys better known as Ricky and Dale.
Stewart is a reluctant restrictor plate artist. While unnerved by the fact he needs another driver’s push or draft to help him move toward the front, Stewart is more often than not at the front of a restrictor plate race. Of the 1,298 laps available in the past seven restrictor plate races (2005-2006), Stewart has led 442 of those laps (34%) and logged an average finish of third.
Elevating that number are Stewart’s back-to-back wins in the Fourth of July race at Daytona, where for the past two seasons – including this one – Stewart has dominated by leading 237 of the 320 laps available (74%).
And while Stewart has yet to record a win at Talladega’s vast, 2.66-mile oval, it seems only a matter of time before Stewart’s orange and black Chevrolet Monte Carlo is the one a different driver sees beating him to the checkered flag.
You’ve finished second six times at Talladega and logged eight top fives and 10 top 10s in 15 career Nextel Cup starts. Despite those strong finishes, does not having won bother you?
“No, not at all. I mean, Talladega is a track where you can’t do anything on your own. You have to strictly rely on what everybody else around you is doing. It’s still not real racing when somebody else has to go with you and somebody else can dictate how you run. If you don’t ever have anybody go with you all day you never have a shot at winning. But if you have guys go with you, you have a shot. We haven’t won there, but look at how many second-place finishes we’ve had. Anytime you can finish in the top-two is like a win at Talladega, especially when you’ve done it as consistently as we have. As volatile as Talladega can be with getting caught in a wreck and this or that, for us to have finished second there six times, and three times in the past three races, that’s something to be pretty proud of because Talladega is not a race track where you can do it all on your own. You’ve got to have help. Our finishing average is pretty high – higher than most for the amount of races we’ve run there. So I’m pretty satisfied with the way we’ve run there.”
Since it seems as though you’ve mastered restrictor plate racing, do you still dislike it?
“I dislike anything where you have to rely on somebody else. To me, what you and your team do should be what it’s all about. I don’t like having to have a guy behind you or in front of you dictate what you do and where you go. That’s really the one reason why I dislike it. It’s very nerve-wracking when you can’t plan your moves unless you know what the guy behind you or in front of you is going to do.”
Is there any strategy involved in running a restrictor plate race, or is it just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented?
“The strategy is making sure you’ve got somebody you can draft with. You have to take the opportunities as they come, but with those opportunities you have to make a very quick decision. You’ve got to think, ‘What happens if I try this and it doesn’t work? What are the ramifications going to be?’ You don’t have the luxury of sitting down and taking the time to analyze the situation. You’ve got to make a split-second decision. A lot of times it’ll work, but there are times when the decision that you made doesn’t work. But once you’ve committed yourself to doing something, there’s not much you can do about it.”
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.
“It’s such a chess match. You can be leading the race one second and you can be fifth the next second. I think it’s just a matter of timing and getting yourself in the right place at the right time.”
Is a fast car all you need to be successful in restrictor plate races?
“You have to have a fast car. But with that fast car, you’ve got to have a good team that gets you in and out of the pits fast, and you’ve got to have a driver who knows what he’s doing. Get all that together, along with a little bit of luck, and you can have a good day.”
Do you enjoy racing at Talladega?
“You can say the track hasn’t been kind to me with as many second place finishes as we’ve had, but there are 41 guys who didn’t have it as good as we had it those days. There have been a lot of days where we ran second and it was as good as a win for us. Last year’s spring race was a perfect example. We knew we didn’t have the best car, but we ended up with a second place finish. That was the best we could do and we left the track with smiles on our faces.
“The Talladega weeks are always fun weeks for me because I go fishing and it’s a week where I don’t turn my cell phone on and I don’t worry about the race car. It’s just a week to kind of hit the reset button, and by the time I get to the track, I’m fresh and ready to go. I always have fun when I come to Talladega.”
What’s the difference between racing at Talladega and Daytona?
“You can run two- and three-wide all day at Daytona. At Talladega you can run three-wide all day easily, and sometimes four-wide. Essentially, Talladega just has an extra lane compared to Daytona, because its track is a little easier to get a hold of mechanically. Handling isn’t near as big of an issue as it is at Daytona. Talladega is just about speed, and finding more of it. It’s bigger, so its corners are a little bit bigger, which is why handling doesn’t seem to be quite as much of an issue.”
Will the new pavement at Talladega change anything? Will you have more grip to move around the race track? Will a groove have to be created?
“We won’t know until we get there. It’s a big question mark. There’s a lot of unknown variables right now for us that none of us are going to know until we get out there and get on the race track. But we’re all excited to see how smooth it is. It’s never been a problem to run three-wide or even four-wide there. So, I expect to see a lot of four-wide racing this weekend with fresh asphalt there. It’s going to be pretty neat. Anytime a track gets a new surface, it’s always interesting and fun to see what it’s like once you get there.”
Do you think Talladega will be faster now?
“I would say so. I think a lot of it depends on how smooth it is. The smoother it is, obviously the faster we’re going to go. I think it’ll pick up a couple of miles an hour. As drivers, we won’t notice the difference as far as speed goes, but the racing will be a lot tighter, for sure.”
Juan Pablo Montoya will make his first career start in a stock car in the ARCA race at Talladega. What advice do you have for him as he transitions from life in Formula 1 to life in stock cars?
“He’s got talent. He’ll do just fine. It’s just going to take him a little bit of time to get used to having a car with a lot less downforce. Once he gets used to that, he’ll be fine.”