Stewart Mellows On Martinsville

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Tony Stewart has never been one to shy away from speaking his mind. Even after declaring his intent to keep quiet, Stewart still says what he thinks.

Take Martinsville Speedway, for instance – the site of this weekend’s Old Dominion 500 NASCAR Winston Cup Series race – where Stewart is the defending champion.

Most drivers would heap lavish praise on the track, especially the defending race winner. They may not believe it, but they’ll say it, if only to be politically correct.

Not Stewart. This is the guy who once said Martinsville’s .526-mile oval was a “parking lot with curbs.”Has winning changed his tune? Not at all.

“No, it’s still a parking lot with curbs around it,” Stewart said. “But now it’s a parking lot with curbs where if you win they give you a really nice grandfather clock. And they should give you something really nice after winning a race there.”

The grandfather clock is one of the perks of winning at Martinsville.

“It’s the most unique of any of the trophies I’ve ever received, for sure,” Stewart said. “It sits in the office at my house. They delivered it, set it up and showed me how to make all the bells and whistles work. It’s a neat reminder for every time we get ready to go to Martinsville of what the prize is for winning.”

Perhaps that’s Stewart’s way of psyching himself up for the flat half-mile. Remember, he doesn’t care too much for it. Well, maybe he likes it a little more than when he first showed up.

That would have been more than two years ago, in April 1999, when Stewart and his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Pontiac team tested there. It was an ugly test, made more baffling by Stewart’s pole in his first race there. Stewart credited crew chief Greg Zipadelli for correctly setting up the car for the pole-winning run.

He finished 20th in the race, and then returned to start 37th and finish 41st. That’s when his real feelings surfaced.

“If I have a love-hate relationship with Martinsville, then we’re missing the love part of the equation,” Stewart once said.

You’d think a guy would mellow as he aged. Maybe Stewart has – a little. Of course, when you finish sixth, first and seventh in your past three races at a track, you’d likely change your tune, too.

“I don’t know. I definitely don’t dislike it as much as I used to,” Stewart said. “Winning did help that. But I’ll tell you, the one thing that saves that place is the people who are there and the fans that are there. You can see them every time you’re out there practicing. Every time you get into the car you can look across the fence and see them and they’re yelling good luck to you.

“That’s the only thing that saves that place in my opinion. But it’s just a tough place. I mean, if I can get through that whole day without getting a scratch on The Home Depot Pontiac, it’ll be a miracle.”

Uh, oh, the Bad Boy Stewart strikes again. Well, not really. Martinsville is a difficult place.

“You aren’t going to hit your marks every lap,” Stewart said. “It’s very hard. But if you get a car that drives well, it makes life a lot easier. If your car is a little bit off, then it seems like it’s way off. It’s probably one of the hardest tracks on the circuit to get the balance of your car really, really good.”

But if you get it balanced, you can whip around Martinsville with the greatest of ease. Well, sort of.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s an easy day if your car is good, but it’s tolerable,” Stewart said. “If your car is off, it makes for a very, very long day, and it can be a very frustrating day on top of that. Again, making sure the balance of the car is good makes you stay patient and calm for the duration of the race.”

Patience. Calmness. Two words you don’t usually attribute to Stewart. Isn’t he the same guy who screamed at Winston Cup director Gary Nelson on national television? The same guy who slapped a tape recorder out of a reporter’s hand? Calm? Patient?

“When you’re in one of these cars, you’re focused on certain things, mainly driving as hard as you can, but sometimes at some places that’s not necessarily what it takes,” Zipadelli said. “Being smooth, being consistent and hitting your marks will sometimes pay off more than driving the hell out of your race car.

“Tony’s one of those guys who wants to drive and run hard, but there’s certain places like Martinsville where that’s not always the thing to do. Last year at Martinsville he really did everything that we asked him to, and it paid off. I wish it were that easy all the time, but we still have a lot of growing to do as a team. This is still only our third year together, and the way I look at it, we’re only going to get better.”

And Stewart should, too, especially as Zipadelli teaches him more about patience.

“He’s been really good, especially from the aspect that he knows that when we’re at a track like that, he knows what to look for with my driving style as far as how I might overdrive the car,” Stewart said. “He’ll coach me along during a run to take care of my race car and to not overdrive it. So, to have him on the radio is a big comfort to me.”

Stewart may not need a lot of comforting this weekend. He’s won two of the five short-track races in 2001 and is third behind Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace in points accumulated at tracks less than a mile in length.

“Martinsville is Martinsville,” Stewart said. “It’s a lot like Darlington. It’s a tough surface to get a hold of, but it’s got a lot of tradition and history behind it. So, any time you can win a race on a short track you respect it, but especially when it’s at a place like Bristol or Martinsville. Those are two really hard tracks to win at.”

Respect a place like Martinsville? He’s actually getting close to liking it.

Perhaps.

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