Charlotte II: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Dejà vu All Over Again ATLANTA (Oct. 12, 2004) - NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart is solidly in the top-10 in points. Chassis No. 77, a car that has led 715 of an available 3,812 laps (18.8 percent), has been chosen...

Tony Stewart
Dejà vu All Over Again

ATLANTA (Oct. 12, 2004) - NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart is solidly in the top-10 in points. Chassis No. 77, a car that has led 715 of an available 3,812 laps (18.8 percent), has been chosen as Stewart's mount for Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte (N.C.). The five members of The Home Depot Racing Team who hail from New England are intently following the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

The aforementioned scenario is currently being played out, but it's also the exact same scenario that played out one year ago. As Yankees legend Yogi Berra once said, "It's dejà vu all over again."

Last year's October night race at Charlotte saw Stewart lead six times for 149 laps - the most of any driver - en route to winning his first point-paying race at the 1.5-mile oval. As Stewart effortlessly wheeled Chassis No. 77 around the race track, crew members in the pits received updates on the status of Game 4 between the Red Sox and Yankees.

And as much as Red Sox fans wanted a rematch with the rival Yankees this year, members of the #20 Home Depot Racing Team wanted a return trip to Charlotte. The sixth to last race on the marathon-like Nextel Cup schedule could be pivotal for the orange and black, as they sit on the edge of contention and elimination in this year's playoff-style Chase for the Championship.

Stewart is sixth in points, 173 markers behind series leader Kurt Busch. A win or another strong top-five finish at a track where Stewart already has six top-fives in 11 career, point-paying starts could provide the catalyst Stewart and Co. need to secure their second series championship. But a poor finish with only five races left on the schedule could leave the #20 team as mere bystanders in this year's title run.

In baseball, the Red Sox and Yankees only have to worry about each other. But in NASCAR, Stewart and his Home Depot Racing Team must worry about 42 other driver/team combinations, and specifically, the nine other teams they're racing for the championship. As Berra also said, "The other teams could make trouble for us if they win." For the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing squad, Berra's words ring prophetic.

To make a run at the title, is it about getting the points or is it about the competitors you have to beat to get there?

"To be honest, there's only one guy I'm looking at and that's whoever is leading the points that week. The only number that matters is the difference between us. It doesn't matter if we're 40th in points at 150 back or second in points at 150 back, you've still got to gain those 150 points to get in the lead. It's not really the physical numbers of how many people you've got to pass to get there, it's realistically how many points you have to gain on the guy who's leading to get there.

"If you look at our 2002 season, nobody after Daytona would've predicted we'd come back from that - especially with 12 races to go, nobody would have predicted it, let alone seven or eight races to go. We're close enough right now in the points that theoretically we could be as high as second in points after Charlotte. Six weeks to go is a long time. It's not out of reach by any means. Anything can happen in this series from week to week. Realistically, you have to take it one day at a time. Something that happens on Friday can directly impact what happens to you on Sunday. So literally, you have to take these next six weeks one day at a time until the end of the season."

Which would you rather be, the point leader with everyone chasing you, or the position you're in now, where you're chasing the point leader?

"If I spent that much time worrying about what everybody else was doing, I'm really not doing my job as a driver. It's more important for me to make sure we're doing everything 100 percent. We can't control what they do anyway, so why worry about what they're doing? The only thing we can control is what we do. We need to focus 100 percent of our energy on what we're doing and not on what everybody else is doing."

Do you enjoy running the October Charlotte race at nighttime?

"I like it. I enjoy having Sundays off. The crew guys can have a day off. We as drivers can have a day off. Folks in racing can live like normal people for a day. When we race on Sunday, the crew guys don't get a day off on Monday. They have to be at the shop. Weekends where we have a Saturday night race gives the crew guys a bit of a breather on Sunday."

Do you feel the track at Charlotte has changed much since you won there last October?

"The track feels the same. It's the one place where we feel like the new tire we've been using this year hasn't affected our setup a lot. We felt like we still had a very good, well-balanced race car when we were there back in May. We're definitely looking forward to getting back to Charlotte.

"As far as how the track changes, it just depends on the weather conditions. That track is very temperature sensitive, so you have to be constantly aware of what the track is doing and how hot or cool it is. But for the most part, Charlotte is pretty much the same race track as it was last year or any other time we've been there."

It's been said that the track surface at Charlotte changes a lot. How so?

"It's temperature sensitive, and depending upon when we practice and what time of day we make our runs, you kind of have to plan ahead for knowing what the track is going to do. We'll watch it, paying attention to what time the practices are and we'll set up The Home Depot Chevrolet accordingly. If the car's not driving perfect in practice that doesn't mean it's bad, because you know the track is going to cool off. You don't want to adjust a whole lot because you might overcompensate for a condition that's not even going to be there when the race starts. So, you really have to plan ahead."

What kind of role do aerodynamics play at Charlotte?

"Charlotte's not as bad as some of the other tracks. Aero does play a role, but Charlotte is still a handling race track. You've got to get your car to drive well and handle well. That's the main thing at Charlotte. It has more bumps than some of these other tracks do, and that's what can change the attitude of your race car."

You've said that you run a unique line around Charlotte. Explain the line you run.

"It's the same line that I run in qualifying. As the tires get older a lot of drivers will move up off the bottom of the track through turns three and four. I'm able to stay right on the bottom with the setup that we run. It's hard to do that because the race track is a lot rougher on the bottom of (turns) three and four. So, it's a unique challenge for us to find a balance as to what we need to do to The Home Depot Chevrolet to make it compatible with the tire."

Is turn four as treacherous as everyone claims? How so?

"With the line I run I have a lot of room coming off turn four since I run on the bottom. But when a lot of guys over the course of the race move up to the top of the race track, then it does become treacherous because it gets really tight coming off of turn four. That and the banking falls off real hard, too. It makes for a unique challenge. Once you get into turns one and two you can get right back on the gas and stay in it. Turns three and four are a different story. With the years of the sun beating down on that part of the track, Mother Nature hasn't been kind to that end of the race track. It's bumpier and the cars will move around a little more. That makes it a little harder to get through."

-jgr-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Kurt Busch