Charlotte II: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Days of Our Lives Enters Charlotte ATLANTA (Oct. 9, 2007) -- "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives." So said actor Macdonald Carey, who recited that epigram each day before the start of NBC's Days of Our...

Tony Stewart
Days of Our Lives Enters Charlotte

ATLANTA (Oct. 9, 2007) -- "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives." So said actor Macdonald Carey, who recited that epigram each day before the start of NBC's Days of Our Lives -- the soap he starred on as Dr. Tom Horton.

Days of Our Lives would work well in the word of NASCAR, especially during the final, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup. Each race has so far yielded a soap opera-esque turn of perceived momentum and invincibility.

Think back to before the Chase started when Clint Bowyer was the only driver in the Chase without a win. Seeded last among the 12 drivers competing for this year's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship, he had no shot at winning the title. How could someone who hadn't won a race during the regular season win the championship in the 10-race playoff? Bowyer answered that question by dominating the first race at New Hampshire. He took the pole, led six times for 222 laps, and finished the 300-lap race in first. That first-time win vaulted Bowyer from 12th to fourth in points, 15 points out of the lead. Bowyer is the new favorite to win the championship, despite no one giving him a shot just a few days earlier!

At the next Chase race at Dover (Del.), Carl Edwards won and between him and his Roush Fenway Racing teammates, the organization led 293 of the 400 laps available. Roush Fenway has it figured out and Edwards is now the new favorite for the championship!

In round three at Kansas, a two-and-a-half hour rain delay took what seemed to be a sure win for Tony Stewart and instead turned the race into a point windfall for Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Johnson, the reigning series champion, is back atop the points and is the new favorite to take the title!

And in the series' most recent stop at Talladega (Ala.), Gordon won a last lap shootout that vaulted him into the point lead and further distanced him and the rest of the top-three from their Chase pursuers. Gordon has put his stamp on this year's championship and is the new favorite to win it all!

Now the series rolls into Charlotte, with Stewart having about all of the drama he can stand.

The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing enters the halfway point of the championship chase fourth in points, 154 back of series leader Gordon. Stewart is out! This championship battle is between Gordon and Johnson!

Whatever.

Last year with only four races down in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, eventual champion Johnson was seventh in points, 146 markers arrears then leader Jeff Burton. Johnson finished second at Charlotte and rallied his way to 56-point lead when the checkered flag dropped at the season finale at Homestead (Fla.).

If Johnson can do it, so can Stewart.

The Home Depot driver has scored nine of his 32 career Nextel Cup wins at the six venues remaining on this year's schedule. Included is a win at the fall Charlotte race in 2003, and back-to-back wins at Charlotte's sister tracks -- Atlanta and Texas -- in 2006.

So what will the headlines blare after Saturday night's race at Charlotte? For Stewart, it doesn't matter. The only headline he cares about is the one that comes on Monday after Homestead.

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 next seven 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. It's been done. Jimmie Johnson did it last year. So for us, it's just a matter of not worrying about what everybody else is doing. We just need to go out and worry about winning races now and hope we are where we need to be at the end of the day."

You won three Chase races last year as a non-Chase driver. Do you have to change the way you look at the Chase this year now that you're contending for the championship?

"You don't really look at it any differently. You still take it one week at a time. That's how we've won championships in the past, no matter what division they were in. Our theory is take it one week at a time and go out and try to win the race, and if we can't win, then finish as high as we can and get the most points as we can. It sounds really simple and basic, but really, that's how basic and simple we treat it. It's not a complicated system. It's not hard to try to figure out how to win the championship. If you win races, the points will take care of themselves. But if you can't win, you can't just throw it away trying to win the race. You've got to be smart and finish as high as you can and not take too many unnecessary chances that can give you the opportunity for having a bad day."

This is the first time in the Chase where you've had a teammate who is also in the Chase. Has the dynamic of running for championship changed now that your teammate -- Denny Hamlin -- is pursuing the same goal that you are?

"It doesn't. If we both work together, we both finish better. If we're working with each other on days where I'm having a bad day and Denny's coming up behind me, I'm not going to hold him up. I'm going to let him go and let him have an opportunity to get as many points as he can get. With one or two races left, that may be the guy that we're racing for the championship and we may have to do it differently. We definitely want to do the best we can to not only do good for ourselves, but to do good for our teammate, our sponsors and everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing. We'll try to help each other as much as possible. If it comes down to the last race or two and we're the two guys leading the points, obviously you've got to do as much as you can to give yourself that opportunity. The good thing is we'll race each other clean. We race each other with respect. We wouldn't do anything to jeopardize either one of the teams the opportunity to win a championship."

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."

Is there much of an adjustment in racing under the lights at Charlotte as opposed to running during the daytime?

"I think everyone who has gotten to this level has had plenty of experience in racing under the lights. No one in this series just started running Nextel Cup cars. We all started at some short track somewhere running races at night, so I think all of us have plenty of experience running under the lights. And for me, I'm one of those guys who hates getting up early. I'm a lot better at night than I am at eight o'clock in the morning."

Because of the team's switch to Toyota in 2008, does that make contending for a championship this year all the more important because of the growing pains you might experience next year in getting accustomed to the Toyota?

"No. Not at all. Any time we're contending for a championship, the level of importance is high. It doesn't matter what we're driving. If we're racing for a championship, then that's our sole focus.

"I've got a lot of confidence going into next year. Obviously, there's an unknown variable there, but it's not as dramatic as it would have been if we were to make a change like this two years ago with the old cars or this year where we have half the races with the old car and half the races with the new Car of Tomorrow. It's a better situation for us. All we really have to worry about is the engine program. We've got Mark Cronquist who's our head engine builder. He's been there since before I came to the program. It's going to make it a lot easier of a change just knowing that all we have to worry about is the motor program. I'm pretty confident thinking that we're going to come out of the box at Daytona strong. It may not work out. If we have a bad Speedweeks or something because we're having trouble, so be it. But it won't be a problem that will last very long, that's for sure."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Carl Edwards , Clint Bowyer , Denny Hamlin
Teams Hendrick Motorsports , Roush Fenway Racing , Joe Gibbs Racing