Stewarts Position Not Precarious
October 20, 2002 | 8:28 A.M. EST
Martinsville Speedway may be a tough track to get to the front after starting near the back of the pack, but if anyone can do it, bet on Stewart.
Five times this season the Winston Cup Series points leader has finished in the top-five after starting 15th or worse. Three of those times he started 22nd or worse.
So, despite the fact that he’ll have to pass 30 other cars to win Sunday’s race, Stewart should still be factor. He heads into the Old Dominion 500 with a 97-point advantage over rookie Jimmie Johnson, who’ll start seventh.
After Sunday’s event, there will be four races remaining in the season.
Johnson isn't concerning himself with Stewart's starting position.
"After Talladega anything can happen," Johnson said. "Tony (Stewart) is starting 31st or back in the pack. People might think that could cause problems. I started on the pole in Talladega and was wrecked before the green flag ever fell.
"I don't think it matters where you start, everything's got to be on your side, you go out and give 100 percent and there's things that are out of your control that you can't be responsible for that you can't let bother you. That's the way Talladega was for us. We're just hopefully going to stay up front, stay out of trouble and collect some good points."
Johnson's fellow rookie Ryan Newman, who sits in fourth place in the standings, 165 points behind Stewart, will start from the pole. He doesn’t see that as much of an advantage for him over Stewart.
“Points-wise, we’ll just have to see,” said Newman, who has 12 top-10 finishes in his last 14 races. “There are so many things that could happen, but Tony is a great racer. This isn’t the first time he’s started towards the back of the pack and he, of all people, knows how to pass cars.
“We’ll just have to see how things go. All it takes is for one little thing to go wrong to ruin your day or your day and a whole bunch of other people’s. So, hopefully, we can stay out in front of everything and have a good day.”
"You can win from anywhere," said Jeff Burton, who won the fall race at Martinsville in 1997. "It's harder here than it is at other places, but we've been able to win before from way in the back."
Martinsville has become one of Stewart’s better tracks over the past couple of years. He’s finished in the Top 7 in four of his last five races there, with the exception of last year’s fall event, when he finished 41st after developing engine failure.
He’s taken one checkered flag at Martinsville (the fall of 2000), but he started from the pole in that race and stayed up front throughout most of the race.
“It’s just good short track racing,” Stewart said of Martinsville. “With aerodynamics being such a big part of our sport now, Martinsville is probably the only place left on the
schedule where if you knock the front end off the car you can go on and still
win the race. You can’t go anywhere else on the circuit and do that. You can’t go to Richmond and do that. Not even at Bristol (Tenn.) can you get away with that. But at Martinsville, if you have a good driving car while the front of it looks like an old modified, you can still win the race.
“You learn how to protect the car. You learn how to not beat it up. You learn it’s a lot more fun racing when you use a lot more patience. Patience seems to be the biggest variable that can hold you up at a place like that. Needless to say, after going there a couple of times, I’ve learned how to be patient – out of necessity, basically.”
And how did he learn to be patient? Crew chief Greg Zipadelli had a lot to do with it.
“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. He’ll coach me along during a run to take care of my racecar and to not overdrive it. So, to have him on the radio is a big comfort to me.”
“I think it’s been a matter of me getting to know Tony better, as well as always trying to do a better job of communicating with him,” Zipadelli said. “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.
“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. When he won that race at Martinsville, he really did everything that we asked him to, and it paid off.”
Stewart’s car was obviously good that day two years ago, but what if the car just happens to be off at Martinsville, especially on a day when you have to make your way through traffic?
“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, 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.”
If that happens with Stewart on Sunday, then the championship picture, as it has all season long, can change drastically.
The green flag falls on the field for the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Sunday shortly after 12:30 p.m. ET.