Championship beckons as series moves to Charlotte ATLANTA (Oct. 8, 2002) - Had Tony Stewart picked up the classified section of the newspaper prior to arriving at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for last Sunday's EA SPORTS 500, he may have...
Championship beckons as series moves to Charlotte
ATLANTA (Oct. 8, 2002) - Had Tony Stewart picked up the classified section of the newspaper prior to arriving at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for last Sunday's EA SPORTS 500, he may have noticed the following
"Available 2002 Winston Cup championship Four interim owners No takers, but many inquiries No reasonable offer refused Must go by Nov. 17."
Had that ad actually existed, Stewart's letter of intent would've been signed a little after 3:43 p.m. EDT, for after two hours, 43 minutes and 22 seconds of racing around Talladega's 2.66-mile oval, Stewart emerged as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point leader for the first time in his career. His second-place result, along with the woes suffered by other title contenders at Talladega, gave The Home Depot Pontiac driver a 72-point margin over Mark Martin, his closest championship pursuer.
As the series heads into Charlotte (N.C.) for the UAW-GM Quality 500, just six races remain on the Winston Cup schedule. Stewart has won at four of the host venues - Martinsville (Va.), Atlanta, Phoenix and Homestead (Fla.) - but never in a points-paying race at Charlotte. That's not to say, however, that Stewart isn't up to improving those stats.
He has logged four top-fives and six top-10s in the seven career point races he has entered at Charlotte. His best result was a second, which Stewart earned in last year's fall event. And despite not having yet won either the Coca-Cola 600 or the UAW-GM Quality 500, Stewart is still familiar with Charlotte's victory lane. After all, he did win The Winston Open as a rookie in 1999.
As someone who has won an Indy Racing League championship, four United States Auto Club championships, a World Karting Association National championship and an International Karting Grand National championship, Stewart is well-versed in the art of maintaining and obtaining the big, end-of-the-year trophy. And in a points battle as tight as the one currently being waged in the Winston Cup ranks, Stewart knows that the most important race is the next race. In this case, it's the UAW-GM Quality 500.
Now that you're the point leader people will say you're favored to win the championship. What do you think about that?
"Being the favorite doesn't mean a darn thing to me, to be honest, as far as winning the points. Does it mean a lot to me to be leading right now? It probably means a lot from the team's standpoint. But I've led point championships before, and in this deal, the day I want to be leading is Sunday at Homestead (the season finale). There is a lot of racing to go on still. Six races is a lot of racing."
You've won championships before, what would it mean to win a Winston Cup championship?
"It would mean more than anything. It's a question that doesn't even need to be asked. Everybody in this garage area is searching for a Winston Cup championship - even guys that have won it three or four times. Everybody wants to keep winning Winston Cup championships. That's what we're all striving for."
With a win at Atlanta, a fifth at Texas and a sixth in the Coca-Cola 600, do you feel you that in this season you have a better handle on the 1.5-mile tri-ovals than you have in previous years?
"We've gained some momentum, for sure. I think there are still a couple of teams out there that have found a little bit more at those tracks than we have, but I also think we're battling the same thing we've been battling every year, and that's aero. We're still racing a six-year-old car that we're trying to get caught up with everybody else. I'm real proud of what our fab shop has been able to do in the last year, and what Greg (Zipadelli, crew chief) has been able to do with the guys to be able to get us to where we are. We can't give up. We've got to keep digging right now and just take it one race at a time."
What kind of role does 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."
Charlotte is a track where you've run very well as of late, especially toward the end of the race. Is there any particular reason why?
"It seems like everywhere we go our car is good midway, right through the end of a run. Between the setup that Greg puts underneath the car and my driving style, that's just the way it ends up working out. It seems like once we get in a rhythm there, and once I get in a position where I can take care of my car and not abuse the tires, I can maintain my car a little bit better through a run than some other guys. But it can work in your favor and it can work against you. If you come down to a 15-lap shootout and everybody comes in for tires, we're not normally an odds-on favorite at that point to go win the race. But if it goes 45 or 50 laps, then we've got a shot at it. It's a hit or miss type situation, but normally through the day if you can be good on long runs, you've probably got a car that's a contender to be there near the end."
Can your win at Atlanta be transferred to Charlotte?
"Well, they're different places in all reality. Charlotte has bumps that Atlanta doesn't have. At Atlanta you can take The Home Depot Pontiac from the wall to the apron and run anywhere you want, basically - not so much at Charlotte. They each have the same layout, but each of them has their own personality. Some things do apply, but some things don't. So that means that there aren't any guarantees on what you think you might have going into Charlotte."
How different is Charlotte when you race there in October compared to when you raced there in May?
"Between Atlanta and Texas, Charlotte does seem to be the most sensitive to temperature. It seems like the three or four weeks leading up to that race are probably the most important, as far as what the weather conditions have been, how much heat isn't necessarily on the surface at the time, but more so how much heat has soaked into the ground during the summer. In May, it seems like the weather is still fairly decent. It's still pretty cool at night, but as the summer wears on and as the days get longer, the track gets a lot more heat in it and it seems to retain that heat when we unload for the fall race. Typically, it always feels like the track for the fall race is a little bit slicker than for the spring race."
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 Pontiac 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. Turns one and two are pretty muchonce you get in there 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. So, it's bumpier and the cars will move around a little more. So, that makes it a little harder to get through."
At this point in the season, how much of a luxury is it to have a race so close to home?
"It's nice to be able to go home on a race weekend and sleep in your own bed. I know that doesn't sound like a very big deal, but when you travel as much as we do, any time that you can spend at home is important, especially at this time of year. There are a lot of drivers and crew members who are starting to get burned out, and a lot of families who are starting to get burned out. So, it's nice to be able to spend a race weekend in your hometown where you can go home and see your friends and family at the end of the day and sit back in your own house and just relax."
Your World of Outlaws team will be racing across the street this weekend. How is your driver - Danny Lasoski - and the team doing since Danny injured himself at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pa., on July 26?
"He and the team just keep getting stronger and stronger each week. Danny's a tough guy. I didn't know until after the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals that he actually had broken ribs and not bruised ribs. That was a driver lying to his car owner because he wanted to stay in the seat. He didn't want to sit out any more races. He knew that if I knew that he had broken ribs that I would've kept him out of the car at Knoxville. I wouldn't have put him at that kind of a risk. But that just shows his determination as a driver. Knoxville was the one race of the year that meant the most to him. And ever since then he's gained momentum. He's still sore but he's still battling. He's second in the driver points and I'm second in the car owner points. He's pretty much out of it as far as getting caught up to Steve (Kinser, current point leader) before the end of the year. But from the owner's side, while we're not close by any means, we're still mathematically in the hunt to beat Steve in the car owner points. Danny's still working hard. He keeps telling me every night when we're on the phone that he's trying to win me that owner's championship again. That means a lot to me that he cares enough about me to keep putting that pressure on Steve. We'll see what can happen. Even if we don't win it I'm pretty confident that we're going to finish in the top-two in car owner points again this year and that Danny will finish in the top-two in driver points. To have two years in a row where you have a championship and a top-two spot the second year, that's a pretty good record for an Outlaw team that's only been on the circuit for two years."
Who are they racing against now that the driver's championship seems to be out of reach?
"Joey Saldana and Craig Dollansky are the guys who we're racing for in second - both in driver and car owner points. We've pulled away from those two guys in the owner points, but in the driver's points it's a little bit tighter, although Danny has been pulling away from those guys a bit lately. We keep the attitude that we're looking forward and not backward. We're not really looking at the two guys behind us. We feel like we're racing Steve Kinser right now."
How tough was it to separate the driver in you between the car owner in you when Danny got hurt and needed to sit out a race?
"From my standpoint as a driver, I don't have a wife or a family to take care of. Danny does. Getting hurt again in a winged sprint car after the injuries that he had, that's something that would've affected him as well as his family. That's where, for me, the car owner side took over. As a driver I understand where he's coming from. He's so focused about the racing that I'm not sure he was really thinking about the ramifications of re-injuring himself. But as an owner, that's something I am thinking about."