KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (May 1, 2013) – For 138 years, the first weekend in May has been synonymous with one of sports most grand traditions – the Kentucky Derby. On Saturday at historic Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., promising three-year olds such as Revolutionary, Orb, Verrazano and Normandy Invasion look to make history by winning the 139th “Run for the Roses,” or as it is also known, “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports”.
Meanwhile, a few hundred miles south in the heart of Alabama, accomplished drivers such as Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick will prepare for another race that is quickly becoming part of the tradition that is the first weekend in May – the Aaron’s 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
While comparing the Kentucky Derby with a stock-car race at Talladega is a little like comparing apples and oranges, it’s hard to ignore the similar prerequisites for achieving success. Both call for a strategic gameplan, plenty of horsepower and a little bit of luck – with a heavy emphasis on luck. If there’s one common denominator between the two, it’s that the best horse doesn’t always win.
Stewart is painfully aware of this point. Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, has endured plenty of races at Talladega where his gameplan was solid and he had a car oozing horsepower, only to have his luck run out before making it to the finish. A look at Stewart’s career record at Talladega tells the tale.
Stewart, a winner of 47 career Sprint Cup races, has made 28 Sprint Cup starts at the 2.66-mile oval where he has a win and nine top-five finishes – six of which have been second-place efforts. He also owns 13 top-10 finishes and has completed all but 121 of the 5,300 laps that have been run since 1999 for a lap completion rate of 97.7 percent. On the flip side, Stewart has a total of six DNFs (Did Not Finish) at Talladega – five of which occurred in the closing laps.
Although there are plenty of restrictor-plate races that have gone sideways – and even upside down – for Stewart, he’s also had his fair share go according to plan. In addition to his Sprint Cup win at Talladega in the fall of 2008, Stewart won the 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Talladega. And when it comes to racing at Talladega’s sister track, Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, Stewart is patiently working his way through the track’s record books. He has four point-paying Sprint Cup wins, three wins in the Daytona 500 qualifying race, three victories in the Sprint Unlimited, two IROC Series wins, and most recently, he scored a record-tying seventh Nationwide Series victory at Daytona, joining the late Dale Earnhardt. Tally them all up and Stewart owns 21 wins on NASCAR’s restrictor-plate tracks.
There is no arguing Stewart knows a thing or two about what it takes to be successful at NASCAR’s two restrictor-plate venues, and this weekend he hopes to take a big step toward regaining championship form. While a new four-legged champion will emerge at the Derby, three-time Sprint Cup champion Stewart looks to ride his four-wheeled steed to victory at ‘Dega. Both runs will offer a thrilling round of racing the first weekend in May.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How would you rate yourself as a restrictor-plate racer?
“Well, I’m not any happier about it than I’ve always been, but we’ve had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks, especially Talladega. We’ve run in the top-two there a gazillion times. I’m glad we’re halfway decent at it, but it’s still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does. It’s not what you do. It’s what you do along with somebody else who decides that they’re going to follow you and help you. That’s the part that frustrates you as a driver.”
It seems that luck plays as much of a factor at Talladega and Daytona as everything else. Why is that?
“Someone described racing on the superspeedways of being a combination of a science project and the luck of a casino, and it’s exactly that way. You do everything in your power to take care of the science or technology side, do everything you can to build the fastest car you’ve got. But if you don’t have the luck to go with it, even if you don’t have any drama with getting the car touched – nothing happens to the car – if you’re just in the wrong spot at the wrong time at the end, it can take you out of whatever opportunity you had. You can have the best racecar in the field and not get the chance to get through to the front.”
How much translates from Daytona to Talladega?
“They’re different tracks with their own characteristics, but its plate racing and that really doesn’t change. Daytona has always been the track billed as being more of the handling track, but we’re still drafting and will be in a pack where you’ve got cars on top of each other. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, and that’s the same whether we’re racing at Daytona or Talladega.”
When you’re in the draft, how much control do you feel you have inside the racecar?
“It depends on the circumstances. You can’t see the air and you hit different pockets (of air). You hit a pocket where you get a real big tow or you hit a pocket where it seems they’re getting a tow and pulling you back, and you just have to play the circumstances. In practice, you just try getting in different scenarios and try to learn if you get in the middle of the draft, what does it do? Will it give you a push? Will it not give you a push? If you get next to this car, does it suck you up or does it slow you down? It’s trial and error, but at the same time, it’s like pulling a pin on a grenade. You know through that process that if one guy makes a mistake, the car’s torn up for the race. It’s just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it.”
As a driver, how much input do you have in making the car go fast at Talladega?
“The race situation is a lot different from practice. You tend to have a much larger pack of cars and that makes a really big difference. But you’re still able to figure out what your car likes and dislikes in the draft during practice. It may not be exactly what you’ll experience in the race, but it’s the closest thing to it. Basically, it gives you an idea of what your car is capable of and where you need to be to make the moves you want.”