Atlanta II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART "Not So Fast, My Friend!" ATLANTA (Oct. 25, 2006) - Tony Stewart is out of championship contention, right? Wrong. Or in the immortal words of Lee Corso, analyst on ESPN's College Gameday built by The Home Depot, "Not so fast, my...

TONY STEWART
"Not So Fast, My Friend!"

ATLANTA (Oct. 25, 2006) - Tony Stewart is out of championship contention, right? Wrong. Or in the immortal words of Lee Corso, analyst on ESPN's College Gameday built by The Home Depot, "Not so fast, my friend!"

While Stewart will not be able to defend his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship, the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing is still in line for a championship this season.

Stewart's title run in 2005 earned him a ride in this year's edition of the International Race of Champions, better known as IROC. The series, celebrating its 30th round of racing, is incredibly simple. Take 12 of the world's top drivers from different racing disciplines. Put them in identically prepared cars. Give them a strict set of rules that prohibits pit stops, qualifying or driver setup of the chassis. Drop the green flag.

In IROC XXX, Stewart has dropped the hammer in the three races leading into Saturday's finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway. After finishing eighth in the season-opener on the 2.5-mile oval in Daytona (Fla.), Stewart scored back-to-back wins at Texas and at the Daytona road course to take a 15-point lead into the deciding race at Atlanta.

Only NASCAR's Matt Kenseth, Grand Am's Max Papis and NASCAR's Ryan Newman have a shot at usurping the title from Stewart. Kenseth is the closest of Stewart's pursuers at just 15 points back. But no matter what Kenseth does, if Stewart finishes third or better, the IROC championship will be his.

If that happens, it will mark Stewart's 11th driving title in his 27 years of racing, as his first championship came at age nine in the 4-cycle rookie junior go-kart class championship at the Columbus (Ind.) Fairgrounds. Stewart's other championships are as follows:

1983 International Karting Foundation Grand National Championship
1987 World Karting Association National Championship
1994 USAC National Midget Championship
1995 USAC Triple Crown - championships in the National Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown divisions
1997 IRL IndyCar Series Championship
2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championship
2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Championship

An IROC championship would be Stewart's first, as the closest the two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion has come to securing an IROC crown was in 2001, when he finished second to his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte.

And just as Labonte's name is etched next to the likes of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt, it's Stewart who is ready to add his name to the ever impressive list of IROC champions.

While you're racing in the Bass Pro Shops 500 on Sunday you're also competing in the last round of the IROC series on Saturday. You're capable of winning the IROC championship that day, and if that happens, where would it rank amongst the other championships that you've won in your career?

"Any time you can win a championship it's big. But the IROC championship to compete against so many different drivers from so many different disciplines and to beat them in a series where the cars are so evenly matched, that's big. It really is about driving the cars, and whoever does the best job driving their car is going to win the championship. If you can beat those guys on talent and not because you've got a better race car, that's a great honor. It would rank right up there with the rest of the championships I've won, that's for sure."

Is IROC a fun series?

"Its fun, but it's competitive too. It's fun to race with guys you normally don't get to race with and real fun to race against guys from all those different disciplines at the same time. I really enjoyed seeing Max Angelelli and Wayne Taylor get a chance to run stock cars for the first time, something they've never had an opportunity to do in their careers. And it was really neat to go to their specialty on the road course at Daytona, and go out there and kind of let it all even out a little more. I keep preaching to (IROC) that we've got to get a dirt race on the schedule because (racing stock cars) leaves the guys like (National Sprint Tour drivers) Steve Kinser and Danny Lasoski at the truest disadvantage. It's stacked toward stock car guys, obviously, because of the type of cars and the tracks we're running, but the cars are set up to where it's easy for us to drive and easy for those guys to learn to drive also. It lets us all run together, a format that nobody else has ever duplicated."

You mentioned that you'd like to see an IROC race on dirt. How serious are you? Would you offer up your track - Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio?

"I told Barbara and Jay (Signore, owners of the IROC Series) that if I won the championship, I would give them back the million dollars it pays to win if they would bring a race to Eldora for next season. We can make Eldora perfect for the IROC Series. We have two of the biggest dirt late model races with The Dream and the World 100. It's definitely smooth enough and wide enough for IROC."

What about the road course guys running on a dirt oval? How would you get them ready for an IROC race at Eldora?

"We can get them plenty of practice. I guarantee that we can get enough volunteer dirt drivers to help teach those guys what to do."

With your IROC car, what you're given is pretty much all you have, because you're not allowed to work on the car. IROC mechanics handle that aspect. But when it comes to making your No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet perform at Atlanta, what are the keys to being successful?

"You just have to constantly adjust your race car. We've led so many laps in the first half of a race there and then been outside the top-five at the end of the day because we didn't stay caught up with the changing track conditions. Atlanta cools off so much and changes so much that you always have to be on top of your setups. You need to make sure that you have enough adjustability as the day goes on. You don't want to get your car so good at the first half of the day that it gets too tight at the end of the day. You almost have to be a little bit on the loose side to really be good at the end of the day."

Until your ninth-place finish in the fall of 2001, Atlanta was the last track for you to score a top-10 finish. In your very next race at Atlanta in the spring of 2002 you won, and you've finished outside of the top-10 only one since. Can you explain your progress at Atlanta?

"Greg Zipadelli (crew chief) has found a package that works really well there. I'm extremely comfortable in my car there, and every time we go back it seems like we just make The Home Depot Chevrolet a little bit better. It's not a track that we spent a lot of time testing at, but Bobby Labonte's reputation and track record at Atlanta have always been good, and that did help us. We haven't won a lot of races there. We've only won one. But it is a track I like."

What's the trickiest part to making a quick lap at Atlanta?

"It has its set of bumps. You need to make sure your car gets over the bumps but still turns well. Normally, if you turn after you hit the bumps, you're tight. If you turn before you hit the bumps, you're loose. Just finding that common balance - getting the car over the bumps but having it turn at the same time - that's what you're shooting for. And because the track is such a momentum race track, if you're a little bit off it seems like you're way off. If your stuff isn't right, you can't expect to run with the pack all day. You've got to be on your game, because it seems like there's always two or three guys who always get it right. And everybody's who's just a little bit off - it shows up big time on the clock."

Explain a lap around Atlanta.

"The frontstretch is a D-shape, so you're running a natural arc all the way into (turn) one, but you kind of drop down into one when you turn the car into the corner. There are a couple of bumps that tend to upset the car, and you really have to work on your shock package on Friday to get your car nice and stable through there. But as soon as you go through those bumps and you get the car settled down, you're right back in the gas, carrying a lot of momentum off of (turn) two and down the backstretch right into (turn) three. You can carry a lot more momentum into three than you feel like you can, but that can be what hurts you later in a run because you're abusing the tires by getting into the corner so hard. But once you get to the bottom of three, the entrance into (turn) four comes up quick. It's a little bit tight getting in there, so you have to be careful and pay close attention to what's happening around you. Atlanta is fast because it allows you to be on the gas so often."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Ryan Newman , Max Papis , Wayne Taylor , Mario Andretti , Danny Lasoski , Steve Kinser , Max Angelelli , A.J. Foyt , Cale Yarborough
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing