KANNAPOLIS, N.C.– NASCAR was ahead of its time.
Well before Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin made “conscious uncoupling” mainstream, NASCAR introduced the Gen-6 racecar in 2013 and consciously uncoupled the tandem draft, which had been prevalent at its two restrictor-plate racetracks – Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway – since 2011.
The new car’s uneven front and rear bumpers made the practice of tandem drafting almost impossible, as the nose of a car pushing against the lead car’s rear bumper didn’t match up, and if the issue was especially forced, the lead car would be sent spinning. It ended up creating a strained relationship.
After having consciously uncoupled for more than a year, NASCAR drivers are, in many ways, closer than they’ve ever been now that old-school, pack-style racing is back as a fundamental component of restrictor-plate racing.
While drivers still seek space and respect as they operate within the 200 mph freight train that is the draft, they continue in the same manner they always have despite oftentimes three-wide racing among a stream of racecars. Winning is the ultimate goal, where separation at the end of the race, preferably while in first place with the start/finish line inches away, is plotted in advance and executed with abandon.
At Talladega, site of the Aaron’s 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday, Stewart has enjoyed the spoils of victory twice, both in 2008. The first came in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in April when Stewart won from the pole, leading five times for a race-high 81 laps in the 117-lap race. The second came in the Sprint Cup Series in October when Stewart outdueled Regan Smith for the win in a green-white-checkered finish.
While Stewart has merely dabbled in the Nationwide Series, making only six Talladega starts in the undercard series, he’s made 29 starts in the elite Sprint Cup Series. More often than not, Stewart has successfully worked the draft and positioned himself well for a win amid the last-lap chaos that is racing at Talladega. He has six second-place finishes, tying him with Buddy Baker for the most runner-up finishes at Talladega. Additionally, Stewart has nine top-fives, 13 top-10s and 317 laps led. He’s also completed all but 126 of the 5,492 laps available to him since coming to Talladega as a rookie in April 1999.
The 2.66-mile oval in eastern Alabama beckons Stewart again as he hunts for his first catch of the 2014 season. In his signature No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart is ready to join teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch as 2014 race winners.
With a car honed in the wind tunnel coupled with Stewart’s savvy behind the wheel thanks to 16 years of racing at NASCAR’s highest level, Stewart is conscious that the Aaron’s 499 could deliver him career Sprint Cup win No. 49.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What is restrictor-plate racing like now that tandem racing is no more?
“We’re still drafting, we’re just not pushing like we were for two or three years there. It’s kind of back to the way it used to be. Some drivers liked the tandem drafting. Some guys didn’t like it. I never was a fan of cars pushing each other in the first place, and I didn’t like not being able to see through the car right in front of me when I was pushing. That’s a little better now.”
How will you approach qualifying at Talladega?
“Honestly, I just want to take care of my Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevy. It won’t do you any good if you qualify on the pole there, but end up getting wrecked in qualifying. You’ve got guys that’ll try to get to the back and guys that’ll try to make a run to the front. It’s going to be controlled chaos. You’re not going to win the race in the pits. You’re going to win Talladega on the track. It’s more important to make sure we’ve got a good Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevy for the race than we do for qualifying.”
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. You do everything you can to build the fastest car. 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, it can take you out of the opportunity to take the best racecar in the field and win.”
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. 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, your car’s torn up. It’s just a delicate balance of how hard you go, how many things you try, and how much time you spend doing it.”
How much translates from Daytona to Talladega?
“They’re different tracks with their own characteristics, but it’s plate racing and that really doesn’t change. Daytona has always been billed as being more of the handling track, but we’re still drafting and we’ll 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.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine