Charlotte II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART It Ain't the Coca-Cola 595.5 ATLANTA (Oct. 8, 2008) -- Tony Stewart finally got the breakthrough win he'd been searching for all season long when he won last Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega (Ala.)...

TONY STEWART
It Ain't the Coca-Cola 595.5

ATLANTA (Oct. 8, 2008) -- Tony Stewart finally got the breakthrough win he'd been searching for all season long when he won last Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. The victory ended a 43-race winless streak dating to last year at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road course.

That Watkins Glen win was Stewart's third win in the span of four races, as the notoriously streaky Stewart had won back-to-back races in July at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., and Indianapolis Motor Speedway before finishing sixth at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, the race prior to The Glen.

That it took 43 races for Stewart to score his 33rd career Sprint Cup win is indeed surprising, but it certainly wasn't for lack of effort.

There was the last-lap slingshot pass that dropped Stewart from first to third in the 50th running of the Daytona 500. A cut tire in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway that nullified a five-and-a-half second lead and replaced it with an 18th-place finish. A deluge of rain at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July that thwarted yet another shot at victory. Second-place finishes to Jimmie Johnson at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March and again at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway in September. It all left Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team wondering if a plague of locusts would be next.

The locusts never came, but the frustration did. And in Stewart's return trip to Charlotte for Saturday night's Bank of America 500, it means revisiting the scene of one of the more bitter disappointments of 2008.

Stewart started 31st in the May running of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but he quickly worked his way through the field to lead four times for 23 laps and pull out a seemingly insurmountable lead in the waning laps of the series' longest race. But a flat right-front tire three laps short of the finish dropped Stewart off the lead lap and to an undeserved 18th-place result.

The Coca-Cola 595.5 it wasn't, but thanks to a win and a solid test at the 1.5-mile oval in late September, Stewart comes back to the "Beast of the Southeast" with whip in hand ready to whip the "Beast" and score his second consecutive victory for the eighth time in his 10-year Sprint Cup career.

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

Knowing how good you were at Charlotte in May for the Coca-Cola 600 -- where you came from 31st in the 43-car field to lead four times for 23 laps and had victory in sight before a flat right-front tire erased your five-and-a-half second lead and replaced it with an 18th-place finish -- does that kind of a run give you added confidence in your return trip to Charlotte this weekend, or is comparing the two races like comparing apples to oranges?

"It's apples and oranges because we're going back there with a different tire. But after testing there, I'm much happier with the tire Goodyear brought. I don't know where we stacked up with everybody else necessarily, but it was nice having the feel in the tire that we had. I think it gives everybody a little bit more confidence that we'll actually have some grip this time around. I told the Goodyear engineers that I was really happy with the direction I think they're going. I think they really made some big gains there and I was really proud of the tire they brought there. I'm looking forward to it."

You've had a handful of races this year that you feel like you should've won. But is the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May the one that sticks out most?

"Yeah, that's definitely the one that sticks out the most in my mind. I mean, we had a five-second lead with three laps to go. We lost the right-front tire, but it wasn't because of a mistake by Goodyear, it was the fact that we had run 100 laps on the right side tire, so it just physically melted the bead on the right-front. So it wasn't any fault of Goodyear's, it was just circumstances. There's been numerous races like that where we weren't necessarily leading with three or four laps to go that we felt like we were contenders and let it get away from us. But obviously going into the race this weekend and the open test that we had there, we really like the new tire that Goodyear brought. I feel like they're starting to get their direction pointed right. The effort that we see Goodyear putting forth this week in the test at Indy is proof of that, also. I'm probably the hardest guy when Goodyear makes a mistake, but I'm also the guy that will step up, and when I see that they're making that effort, I want to applaud them for that. And this is a case where the tire that they brought to the Charlotte test, you can tell that they put a lot of time and effort into it and that they're trying to get things going in the right direction again. From a driver's standpoint, we appreciate that."

You're happy with the tire. You just got your first win of the season. You're coming back to a track where you should've won the last time you were there. You're in a competitive position in the points. Is this the closest thing to racing utopia?

"We just have a lot of excitement, finally. It had been a little over 12 months since we won a race, so to get our first one of the year this year, and of all places, to get it at Talladega, which is one of four tracks that we hadn't won a Cup race at in our career, to finally get that first Cup win at Talladega and the first win for the year was a huge, huge day for us. Going into this weekend here in Charlotte, obviously it's a lot of momentum that hopefully we can carry. On Monday, we were all smiling because we finally had a day where everything went our way."

You're seventh in points, 203 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson. Can you still win this championship and collect your third career Sprint Cup title?

"My standpoint has always been, until they say that you're mathematically out of it, you always have a shot. We won the USAC Silver Crown Series championship in '95, and 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. But I think for us as a team and for me personally, days like we had at Talladega are what's going to be so special this year. If we have a chance to win the championship at the end, trust me, we're all for that and we would love nothing more than that. But I think right now where we're at and how many points we need to make up, I think it lets us have a go-for-broke attitude and just go out and try to do what we did at Talladega and win races. I've always said, if you win races, the points will take care of itself. We could still, by theory, win the next six races in a row and still not win the point championship. For us it's about going out and doing what we can do, and the other 11 drivers are going to dictate their fates, too."

Of the upcoming tracks in the final six races on this year's schedule, which one are you looking forward to the most?

"I think this weekend, in all reality. This weekend and Atlanta, Texas, Martinsville and Phoenix are places where we've had a lot of success, but I think the way that we have ran the last three races at Charlotte here, we're pretty excited about it. I feel like we've got a shot at this weekend's race. If we can do what we've been doing, we've got just as good a shot as anybody else."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Dave Darland