Atlanta II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Math Phobic ATLANTA (Oct. 25, 2007) -- "It isn't over until you tell me mathematically we can't do it." So says Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, about his...

TONY STEWART
Math Phobic

ATLANTA (Oct. 25, 2007) -- "It isn't over until you tell me mathematically we can't do it." So says Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, about his team's chances to capture this year's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship.

Stewart, a two-time Nextel Cup champion and the only driver to win a title under the old, non-Chase format and the current Chase for the Nextel Cup layout, is in lockstep with his crew chief.

"Until somebody comes up and says ok, mathematically you are out of it, until then, we have a shot," said Stewart, whose championships came in 2002 and 2005.

With only four races remaining before a champion is crowned, math is on the minds of Stewart and Co. That's because Stewart is 244 points behind series leader and four-time Nextel Cup champion Jeff Gordon.

Pundits have placed Stewart and the eight drivers behind him out of championship contention. They give third-place Clint Bowyer an outside shot, as he is 110 points back of Gordon. The real battle, they say, is between Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who sits second in the standings, down by 48 points.

Stewart isn't buying that. While four races isn't much, there is a total of 644 points that can be won or lost as the series heads to Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and then Homestead (Fla.) for the season finale. With that many points in the balance, a 244-point deficit can be erased.

While the odds of that happening are high, the possibility exists. And for Stewart, Zipadelli and the rest of the orange and black attack, possibility is all they need, especially at Atlanta Motor Speedway, site of this weekend's stop on the Nextel Cup tour.

Stewart has two wins at the ultra-fast 1.54-mile oval, including last year's fall race, where Stewart showed off his version of Oktoberfest by leading seven times for a race-high 146 laps. Stewart followed up that win with another victory the very next week at Texas, the sister track to Atlanta.

Stewart continued his up-front ways when he returned to Atlanta in March. In just the fifth race of the 2007 season, Stewart battled with Johnson and led five times for 121 laps before finishing second to the reigning series champion. The runner-up result was Stewart's 11th top-10 finish in his last 12 races at Atlanta, giving the Columbus, Ind.-native an average finish of sixth.

Knowing how close he came to victory back in March, and knowing the distance between him and this year's championship, Stewart's only nemesis is math.

Do you have any sort of strategy for narrowing the point gap between yourself and Gordon?

"All we can do is just do our job. Even if we win the race for the last four weeks in a row, there is still no guarantee that we could close the gap. All we can do is worry about ourselves right now. It really takes the pressure off of us. All we can do is go for broke now."

Is Atlanta a make-or-break weekend to get back into championship contention?

"No, anything can happen to any of the teams. At this point, who knows? Until somebody comes up and says ok, mathematically you are out of it, until then, we have got a shot. That is all I can say about it. That is all we know. There is no blueprint that says, this is how you win or don't win a championship. So as long as mathematically you still have a chance, you're still in it. Until they tell you that you can't physically or mathematically catch up, then you are still in it. You still have a shot."

Atlanta is the fastest track on the Nextel Cup circuit. Does that hold any additional challenges for Chase drivers like you?

"I don't think there is anything to that. Shoot, we've been racing there for how many years now and guys have been building motors for that track for how many years? Whatever happens, happens. Anything can happen at whatever race track. You look at Charlotte and how many weird things happened there, and how many weird things happen every week to somebody. Something weird happens to somebody every week. I don't think it is because of where you go -- it's just the sport of racing. Weird things happen. Nobody can say why they happen or why they happen more at some tracks more than others. Stuff just happens. That's why we keep racing."

What are the keys to being successful at Atlanta?

"You just have to constantly adjust your race car. 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."

What makes Atlanta different from a lot of the other 1.5-mile ovals the Nextel Cup Series visits?

"Well, you move around a lot more. The surface gets more and more abrasive each time we go there. The neat thing is that the times fall off so guys move around on the race track more. Everybody starts at the bottom, and the fast guys normally end up right around the wall midway through a run. That is something that is different than Charlotte and some of the other tracks on the circuit. Fast guys ran at the top and at the bottom at Charlotte. Other than that, it's shaped exactly like the other ones are."

Do you like having the ability to try different grooves at Atlanta?

"I like having the flexibility to be able to move around. I know that if my car isn't driving all that well in a particular spot that I have the flexibility as a driver to move around on the race track. You can make a difference. It's like Michigan where you can move around and help yourself as a driver, versus being committed and whatever you've got, you've got. It does make you feel better as a driver to know you have that flexibility."

Once the Atlanta race weekend is over, you'll stay there on Sunday and Monday night instead of going home, as there's a two-day Car of Tomorrow (CoT) test at Atlanta. What are your expectations of running the CoT at Atlanta?

"I don't really expect anything. It's more of a wait and see. I don't know what to expect because I haven't done any of the testing with it other than on short tracks. I think it's more about waking up Monday morning with an open mind and going out, starting slow and making sure you know what you've got before you get into it too hard."

One the goals of the CoT was to promote better, tighter racing with more passing. Has the CoT achieved that objective?

"I don't think it's really been much different, honestly. I really haven't seen much difference behind the steering wheel, as far as the competition level. The guys that get them right go fast and lead laps. Guys that haven't quite got it figured out are the same group of guys that hadn't figured out the old cars either, and they run mid-pack and struggle. Hasn't really been a big shocker."

In last year's fall race at Atlanta you put on a clinic, as you led seven times for a race-high 146 laps. It was a dominating win that led to another dominating win a week later at Texas. Did those wins help take the sting out of not making last year's Chase?

"As a team, we knew that not making the Chase wasn't the end of the world. When it happened, we were obviously devastated. But when you look at the season we had and the adversity that we had to overcome, to just be in a position to where we could race to get in the Chase and stay in the Chase -- that was a pretty big accomplishment for us. But it didn't work out for us. It didn't work out for two of the biggest names in NASCAR the year before (Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.). It's just part of the sport, because it shows how competitive this series is. When we didn't get in, it wasn't the end of the world. We just switched our focus. We didn't have the goal of trying to win a championship anymore. Our goal was go out and try to win races, and that's exactly what we did the last time we were in Atlanta. It was a good accomplishment for our team. We ended up winning five races last year. Chase or no Chase, we had a lot to be proud of."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Clint Bowyer
Teams Hendrick Motorsports