Atlanta II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Math Phobic ATLANTA (Oct. 22, 2008) -- "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 Toyota fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, about his...

TONY STEWART
Math Phobic

ATLANTA (Oct. 22, 2008) -- "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 Toyota fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, about his team's chances to capture this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

Stewart, a two-time Sprint Cup champion and the only driver to win a title under the old, non-Chase format and the current Chase for the Sprint 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 338 points behind series leader and two-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Pundits have placed Stewart and just about every other Chase driver out of championship contention. They give second- and third-place Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton an outside shot, as they trail Johnson by 149 and 152 points, respectively. But the phrase, "all but locked up" has been used quite a bit in the stories following Johnson's win last Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

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 338-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 Sprint Cup tour.

Stewart has two wins at the ultra-fast 1.54-mile oval, including the 2006 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 him. And in a case of dejà vu, Stewart finished second to Johnson again when the series returned to Atlanta this past March. The runner-up result was Stewart's 12th top-10 finish in 19 career Sprint Cup races at Atlanta.

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.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:

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

"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."

Everyone seems ready to give Jimmie Johnson his third straight championship. What makes you feel like you still have a shot at winning a third championship of your own?

"When we won the USAC Silver Crown Series championship in '95, we were the third driver of three that had a shot, mathematically, to win it. There were two drivers, Jack Hewitt and Dave Darland, that were neck-and-neck in the point standings, and we were kind of the third wheel. We were only included in the group media sessions because we were mathematically in the hunt. Both of those drivers ended up having problems in the race, and we won the point championship by two points. You realize when you use that experience, knowing that as long as you're mathematically in the hunt, you still have a shot."

Atlanta is the fastest track on the Sprint 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 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 Sprint 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."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Dave Darland , Jack Hewitt