TONY STEWART Numbers Game ATLANTA (Aug. 21, 2007) -- In addition to all of the tools and equipment the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team will pack into their orange transporter for the trek to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway this weekend, they'll...
ATLANTA (Aug. 21, 2007) -- In addition to all of the tools and equipment the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team will pack into their orange transporter for the trek to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway this weekend, they'll also bring a stockpile of numbers.
With three races to go before the cutoff for the final, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, Tony Stewart's magic number is 391. That's how many points he needs to have over the 13th-place driver following Saturday night's Sharpie 500 in order to lock himself into this year's Chase, as only the top-12 drivers in points following the 26th race of the season at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway advance into the Chase. Stewart enters Bristol with a healthy, 512-point lead over 13th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After missing last year's Chase by a scant 16 points, Stewart is poised to not only clinch a Chase berth well in advance of Richmond, but also to position himself at the top of the Chase leaderboard when the points for the top-12 are reseeded.
Thanks to three wins so far this season, Stewart has 30 bonus points to start the Chase, only 10 fewer than four-time race winners Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. And with Bristol next up for Stewart, the two-time Nextel Cup champion looks to add some more bonus points to his Chase tally.
Stewart earned his 12th career Nextel Cup win in the 2001 Bristol night race. He now has 32 wins to his resume, with the last one coming two races ago at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road course.
In addition to his win at Bristol, Stewart finished second in the 2000 night race, fifth in the 1999 night race and eighth in the 2005 night race. In those four races he led a total of 429 laps, or 21.5 percent of the 2,000 laps available. Stewart has led 1,085 laps out of a possible 8,504 laps at Bristol to pace the field 12.8 percent of the time since his first Bristol start in April 1999.
Look for Stewart and his Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) teammates to add to those statistics come Saturday.
The Sharpie 500 is the 10th of 16 Car of Tomorrow (CoT) races on this year's Nextel Cup schedule before the CoT is fully implemented for the 2008 season. In the nine CoT races prior to Bristol, JGR has led 1,045 of the 2,983 laps available (35 percent), the most in Nextel Cup. Hendrick Motorsports is next best with 764 laps led, 281 fewer than JGR.
Two-hundred-and-fifty-seven of those laps came via Stewart in the series' visit to Bristol in March. Stewart dominated that race, but misfortune struck on lap 289 when the No. 20 car's fuel pump cable broke. With no fuel pressure, the engine shut off, forcing Stewart to come to pit road. Crew members were able to replace the cable and get Stewart back onto the race track, albeit 25 laps down.
While that race was disappointing, Stewart and Co. know what they're capable of in their return visit to Bristol. And even with a new concrete surface, the No. 20 team has experience and numbers on their side to post a strong Bristol finish and lock up a spot in the Chase.
Now that the Chase for the Nextel Cup seems to be taking shape, have you thought about a strategy to use during the final 10-race stretch to the finish?
"If you win races the points take care of themselves. Every week when we go to the track we're going to try to win the race, and if we can't win we'll finish as high as we can and get as many points as we can. Once we do that, the points will just have to be what they are."
With the pressure upon some drivers to make the cut for the Chase for the Nextel Cup, will it make Bristol an even more aggressive race?
"I don't think it'll be any different. I still think when it comes to racing, guys are simply just racing. I think at the end of the day they look at the point standings, but for the most part, the whole time you're out there you're worried about winning the race or doing as well as you can. I really don't think people's mindsets will change."
While the layout of Bristol is still the same, it has a new concrete surface. Do you expect it to change the scope of the race?
"It's probably one of the most exciting races of the year. Even though it's going to be a little different, it's still Bristol. You can do whatever you want to the race track, it's still going to be Bristol and it's still going to be fun and exciting for everybody."
Because things happen so quickly at Bristol, are your senses heightened more so than they are at other tracks?
"You just don't have time to relax. Everything happens so fast. At the end of the day when the race is done and your adrenaline wears off, you're worn out. But when you're in the car and the adrenaline's pumping, you don't get in that smooth, calm rhythm that you do at a place like Michigan or California where you've got big, sweeping corners and long straightaways. There's no time to relax. You don't get that luxury at Bristol. It's standard short track racing."
Do you go into Bristol knowing that a little more give-and-take will be needed to ensure a strong finish?
"You've got to make sure that you keep the fenders on your car all day and that you're not beating up your race car. If that means a guy gets underneath you and you've got to let him go, then that's what you do. But at the same time, you still have to race hard and not give up track position and lap times because it doesn't take long before you're in lapped traffic. It's a track where you need to be really aggressive, but at the same time, taking care of your equipment all day is key."
There always seems to be a ton of contact at Bristol. How do you balance patience with aggressiveness?
"I think the contact you see at Bristol is more from being so close to one another while going so fast. All it takes is a small bobble on someone's part to cause a chain reaction of guys bumping into each other. It doesn't necessarily cause a wreck, but it gets guys beating and banging on one another. It's not out of necessity. It's just the set of circumstances you have there. Bristol is a place where you have to really be careful. You have to be very patient. We all run so fast there as a group that you really have to take your time when you go to pass somebody. If somebody gets someone else hung out on the outside, it's easy to just tuck in behind the guy on the inside and follow him on by. That's the easiest way to pass cars at Bristol. If you have a good handling car, you've got to take care of it. Taking care of your fenders is the biggest variable in the equation."
The Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 are crown jewel races, but winning at Bristol is also pretty special. How so?
"It's awesome. The coolest thing about Bristol is that you have 160,000 fans that you can see all day long or all night long. I can remember races where I passed Jeff Gordon for the lead and I could see the people cheering. It's one of the coolest tracks I've ever been to in my life. The grandstands are right on top of you. I mean, when you get out of the car after practice or qualifying, you can see what the fans are eating and what they're drinking. You're that close. And as hard as it is to win a race there -- because you've got to have a perfect day to do it -- it really makes you cherish a win there. The one win that I have there is one of the best wins of my career. Anybody who wins at Bristol appreciates it."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing:
After dominating at Bristol back in March, a problem with the fuel pump cable forced the engine to shut off. What happened and is it remedied for your return trip to Bristol?
"It broke, plain and simple. But after looking at how it broke, we found a way to make sure it doesn't happen again, and it hasn't since Bristol. That's what we do here. We push parts and pieces to their limits, and when they break, we find out why and make them better.
"It's a cable that gets driven off of the oil pump, that then runs to the fuel pump, which is in the trunk of the car. All of the Chevrolet teams have to go with this setup, because with the new motor (the Chevrolet R07), it doesn't have a fuel pump on it, so you can't run it old style. The way we have it set up, it's not new. We ran it the last 10 races last year, and the 18 car ran it in about 20-22 races. Our Busch cars ran it most of last year and all of this year, so it's not a new thing."
Were you surprised by how dominant you were? With all of the laps that you led and the dominating fashion in which you led, was that a surprise or was that more an affirmation of the work you and the team had put into the car?
"Without being cocky, I'd like to think it was due to everybody's hard work. I knew we had a good car when we unloaded on Friday. We were right in the ballpark. We qualified well. We went out early and still ended up fourth, which shows you how good the lap was. On Saturday we had a pretty good car in Happy Hour. After the first practice, we made some changes and we really hit on some things in Happy Hour that I think kind of separated us from most cars."