TONY STEWART "I'll Take Atlanta for $1000, Alex" ATLANTA (March 14, 2007) -- The last time Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team came to Atlanta, they were the racing version of multi-time Jeopardy! winner Ken Jennings, because ...
"I'll Take Atlanta for $1000, Alex"
ATLANTA (March 14, 2007) -- The last time Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team came to Atlanta, they were the racing version of multi-time Jeopardy! winner Ken Jennings, because parting gifts were all that were left for the 42 other drivers after Stewart led seven times for a race-high 146 laps to dominate the Bass Pro Shops 500. As Stewart spun donuts through the Bass Pro Shops logo on the infield grass before heading to victory lane, you could almost hear Alex Trebek say, "Thanks for playing."
Stewart returns to Atlanta for the March 18 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race with the same car that not only won at Atlanta last October, but dominated the very next week at Texas when Stewart led eight times for a race-high 278 laps to deliver an even more impressive win.
The Texas win was the 29th of Stewart's nine-year Nextel Cup career, a win tally he shares with crew chief Greg Zipadelli, as the duo enjoy the longest active driver/crew chief relationship in the Nextel Cup garage.
Stewart and Zipadelli have added to Joe Gibbs Racing's (JGR) already impressive history at Atlanta. Their overpowering win in the series' last visit to the 1.54-mile oval was actually their second at Atlanta, for their maiden win in the ATL came in March 2002.
The No. 20 team's triumphs at Atlanta give JGR a total of eight checkered flags at Atlanta, as former JGR driver Bobby Labonte delivered the six other victories between 1996 and 2003. Augmenting those trips to victory lane are three poles -- two in Cup via Labonte and one in the NASCAR Busch Series care of former JGR driver Mike Bliss. And if the scope is expanded to the general Atlanta area, JGR has three more victories from its NHRA era at Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, Ga., as Cory McClenathan scored two Top Fuel wins (1995 and 1998) and Cruz Pedregon nabbed a Funny Car victory (1998).
With career win No. 30 on the line and a race in the hometown of sponsor Home Depot next up for Stewart and Co., Atlanta Motor Speedway provides the perfect backdrop to nab that milestone victory and first of 2007.
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 the 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 overcame, 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. 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."
Dominating wins like that don't come along very often. How did you do it?
"As soon as the green flag dropped, The Home Depot Chevrolet drove exactly like it did at the end of Happy Hour. That's real uncommon, whether you're at Atlanta or anywhere else. I knew we had something good to work with. It was just a matter of fine-tuning all day. I don't think we ever made any big adjustments. We just kept making small adjustments all day and trying different combinations to find exactly what the car liked to do in long runs. We got up front early and had good track position all day. The guys had good pit stops. At the end, track position was really huge because everybody was really fast with the cool temperatures. I was really proud of my guys and of Zippy (Greg Zipadelli, crew chief) most of all for making the call to come in and get four tires on our last stop. He let me know that we had lost six tenths of a second between our first lap and our 10th lap on our 10-lap run before the caution came out. We needed to come in and get tires. I just didn't know how many he was going to put on. He made an awesome call putting four tires on. From there, it was just a matter of pacing ourselves. At Atlanta, you can really hurt your tires early if you try to overrun them too soon. So it was just a matter of running the pace we needed to run to keep the interval that we had."
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 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 two. But it is a track I like."
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'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."
You'll be participating in a KaBOOM! playground build at Evansdale Elementary School in Doraville, Ga., on Thursday. You and crew members from JGR will build a playground in a single day as part of the Racing to Play program. You've done a lot of these. Do you enjoy these events more than a standard appearance because you can see the results of your hard work?
"It's a pretty cool deal. It's a partnership between The Home Depot, Joe Gibbs Racing and KaBOOM!. We've done some KaBOOM! builds in the past, and they're great because unlike an autograph session or other kinds of appearances, you know you're actually doing something. The Doraville build will be the first of 10 playground builds that we'll be doing this year, and all of them will be done in a single day. All of the playgrounds are NASCAR-themed and they're all taking place in race markets. But I know that Joe (Gibbs, team owner) won't let me touch any power tools or anything with a sharp edge. So I might just be stuck shoveling gravel or something. But if my tools don't make some kind of noise or aren't capable of making mass destruction of something, I'll be a little disappointed."