A Rock And A Hard Place
February 24, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
A bad day in Daytona will do that to you.
Jimmy Spencer had a bad day in central Florida, and it wasn’t even on Sunday. Tony Stewart had a bad Daytona 500, so bad it lasted only two laps.
Spencer and Stewart are just two of many drivers who find themselves deep in the Winston Cup points standings, who need a good result this weekend at North Carolina Speedway, who need something good to happen period.
Ricky Craven starts from the pole in today’s Subway 400, which gets the green flag at 1 p.m. (ET). Ken Schrader starts second, with Johnny Benson third at Rockingham’s abrasive 1.017-mile oval where tire management is crucial to success.
Spencer starts 12th in the 32-car field, his best start at North Carolina Speedway. Stewart starts 19th, but he’s one of the best at setting up a car for long runs that are common at Rockingham.
A victory for either driver would be wonderful, but a Top 5, even a Top 10, would be good. Neither driver is in the Top 40 in points – heck, Spencer doesn’t have ANY points – so a good run at Rockingham would go a long way in helping both drivers arrest the brief free fall in which they currently find themselves.
Spencer probably needs it more than Stewart. He crashed in his qualifying race at Daytona and had to head home three days early. Many expected Spencer to have an outside shot to contend for the Winston Cup title, so not making the Daytona 500 was a stunning blow.
“I enjoyed the 500,” Spencer said. “I sat there with my two dogs. The fun thing about the day was they had no clue what the hell was going on. That’s the only relief out of this whole picture. They just sat there beside me and we watched the race. We were pulling for Dodge and mostly for (teammate) Sterling (Marlin).”
Well, OK, Spencer seems to have dealt with it fine. But he also understands how difficult the task of moving high into the points standings will be.
“Everybody says you can’t win the championship or finish in the Top 10 in points now that we’ve missed Daytona,” Spencer said. “When you go in with that attitude, you’re defeated already. If anything, I think it made our race team a lot stronger.
“You hear people say ‘We’ve been at Daytona so long, we can’t wait to get to Rockingham.’ Well, I have to admit I’ve felt that way at times, too, but after not making the race, I don’t think I’ll ever feel that way again.”
Spencer didn’t sit around and mope during his unexpected off-weekend.
“I’ve got willpower, so I’m in good shape after Daytona,” Spencer said. “I don’t think our season is over by any means. It’s just starting as a matter of fact. We’re going to win some races and contend for the championship. We tested down here and ran pretty good. We tested at Atlanta and Vegas and ran pretty good at all three tracks.
“We didn’t run as good at Daytona as we wanted to. All indications showed we didn’t run good at Daytona when we tested, and we didn’t run good when we came back. I think we’ll run good at these next three tracks, and we’ll run good at Talladega without a question. Those guys are building us some new Dodges right now, and we’ll go to the wind tunnel, and we’ll be in good shape.”
Stewart said he’s in pretty good shape, too, despite standing 43rd in the points standings coming to Rockingham. He blew an engine on the second lap of the Daytona 500, a disappointing end to an otherwise good Speedweeks.
Many predicted Stewart would be the leading contender to replace Jeff Gordon as Winston Cup champion, but finishing last in the first race isn’t the best way to start a championship run.
“In a small way it takes a little bit of the pressure off of us because we’re already in a deficit,” Stewart said. “But at the same time, it still falls under the category of trying to get a good start in the first eight races. To a certain degree, it makes it even more important for us to pick it up in the next seven or eight races. We need to get back in the hunt as quickly as possible to give ourselves the opportunity to win the championship at the end of the year.”
And, yes, Stewart does think he still can win the championship. He wasn’t the only contender to have trouble, but Stewart isn’t looking at anyone but himself and his team.
“The way I look at it is we still finished 43rd,” Stewart said. “No matter who finished first, second, third, 12th, whatever – we’re still at a deficit. I don’t care who the leader is or who the contenders are. In this series, a team that really improved itself over the winter and wasn’t considered a championship contender could all of a sudden become a contender. We still have to race the guys that are at the top of the points standings.”
Like Spencer, Stewart refocused on the 2002 season, grabbing a rental car and driving home to North Carolina by himself. Interestingly, crew chief Greg Zipadelli did the same thing, though neither Stewart nor Zipadelli knew of each other’s intentions.
“Driving back home was old school, for the most part,” Stewart said. “It was a way for me to relax. I wasn’t mad. I wasn’t having tantrums. To be honest, I just felt like being by myself and driving home while I listened to the radio.”
Whether the drive home had anything to do with it, Stewart came to Rockingham with confidence.
“I have some confidence, more so than any other time I’ve gone to Rockingham,” Stewart said. “Even though it’s a totally different race track and a totally different engine package, it’s back to a normal, weekly routine.
“It’s a track where you don’t really worry about what everybody else’s car is doing, you worry about what your car is doing. You’re racing the track. You’re not racing everybody else.
“It’s a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things. Once you leave Rockingham, you feel like the season has officially started. It’s a good place to go racing.”