Chicagoland: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART No Primary? No Problem. ATLANTA (July 4, 2006) - It's only happened twice in the eight-plus years the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team has been in existence - a crash in practice forces the team to run a backup car in the race. And...

TONY STEWART
No Primary? No Problem.

ATLANTA (July 4, 2006) - It's only happened twice in the eight-plus years the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team has been in existence - a crash in practice forces the team to run a backup car in the race. And in both instances it's happened at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.

In 2004, Stewart slipped on a patch of oil from another competitor's blown engine and hit the turn three wall just minutes into the weekend's opening practice session. Onto a flatbed went the primary Home Depot Chevrolet and off Joe Gibbs Racing's transporter came the backup.

And last year in a case of dejà vu, Stewart cut a right front tire in turn three and crashed into the turn four wall. Again, the primary car came back to the garage on a flatbed and out of the hauler rolled the backup.

But in both instances, destroyed race cars and a slightly bruised driver were simple hiccups in otherwise successful race weekends.

In 2004, Stewart drove his backup race car to the win in dominating fashion, as he led five times for a whopping 160 of the race's 267 laps.

And while no win was recorded last year, fill-in driver J.J. Yeley did a fine job of qualifying Stewart's Home Depot Chevrolet 13th. Since Stewart didn't qualify the car, he had to start at the back of the 43-car field. But it proved of little matter, for the eventual 2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion picked his way through the field to log an impressive fifth-place finish - his fourth straight top-five at Chicagoland.

Now Stewart returns to Chicagoland in much the same fashion he did last year. The two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion comes into the USG Sheetrock 400 fresh off his victory last Saturday night at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. It was Stewart's second straight July win at Daytona, and it bumped him back into the top-five in points, 299 markers arrears series leader Jimmie Johnson.

And with a nice bit of momentum firmly behind Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team, it appears unlikely to ebb at Chicagoland - despite the team's run of bad luck in Friday's opening practice session. Because even with wrecking two primary race cars in two straight visits to Chicagoland, Stewart has led a total of 275 laps in his last four Chicagoland starts - the most of all drivers. And from 2002 to 2005, he has finished third, second, first and fifth to log an average finish of third.

As Stewart and Co., have demonstrated, even if there's no primary, there's no problem.

Despite having a limited amount of practice time the past two years at Chicagoland, you've performed very well, as a win in 2004 and a fifth-place finish last year indicate. Is Chicagoland a venue where you don't need a lot of practice, or is it just a matter of the team being so prepared that it doesn't matter whether you start the race with your primary or backup race car?

"I'd rather take a chance on not having a guarantee to win the race versus crashing and knowing I can win the race. It's back to the cookie-cutter mile-and-a-halves, and the guys that are good on those mile-and-a-half tracks are good at Chicagoland because the package is pretty similar wherever you go. You don't necessarily need all the practice time, it's just a matter of fine-tuning your car to get it driving the way you want it to there."

With four wins already this year (Atlanta, Texas, Charlotte, N.C., and Michigan), Kasey Kahne and his Evernham Motorsports team seem to have the 1.5-mile tracks figured out. Do you think Kasey Kahne is where you were last year at this time, as you had finished second at Michigan and won back-to-back races at Sonoma (Calif.) and Daytona?

"Oh, absolutely. He's where Greg Biffle and I both were last year. He's in a situation where they've really picked up their program and he's doing everything right, right now. So a guy like him gets very excited when he goes to a place like Chicago and Kansas because those tracks are so similar to each other."

J.J. Yeley has come very close to winning the last two NASCAR Busch Series races at Chicagoland and he did a fine job of qualifying your Cup car last year at Chicagoland. Could Chicagoland be the breakthrough venue that Pocono (Pa.) was for Denny Hamlin, your other teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing?

"I think Chicagoland is going to be a great opportunity for J.J. to really show what he's capable of. He's had good runs all year, it's just at the end, when it's counted, something circumstance-wise has kept him from capitalizing on it. Obviously, with his runs in the Busch Series and qualifying there last year because of our crash in practice, it gives him a lot of confidence going into this year's race."

It seems that despite the relative inexperience of Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley, they've done a lot to help Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Is that true?

"We knew it would be. We knew that internally. It was the right decision, obviously, for us to do. It was just a change that needed to be made. I'm really, really excited for Denny. It's exciting to have somebody that's got their first win this year and bringing so much to the table and making the whole organization feel like a giant team again versus having three separate cars out there. And not to count J.J. out. Obviously, J.J. hasn't had the success Denny's had right now. And honestly, I didn't think he would right off the bat. He's going to have the same kind of success, it'll just take a longer time frame to get it. The good thing is that we have three really good drivers and three awesome race cars and three awesome teams. Now we can finally do what some of these other organizations have been doing."

Chicagoland and its sister track in Kansas look exactly alike. Are they?

"They're about as close as you can get to being the same. You aren't going to find any two tracks that are more identical than Kansas and Chicago. The only difference between the two tracks - the backstretch at Chicago is a little bit rounded while Kansas' is straight."

Even though Chicagoland is still a relatively new track, grip doesn't seem to be an issue. Can you pretty much pass wherever you want?

"I think you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy that misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn't make a mistake and you've got a little better car than they do, I honestly think the groove will move up a little bit this year to where it'll be a little wider and you'll have more room to get a run on a guy. But as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car's handling will become more important. And when a guy makes a mistake you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up."

Track position and pit strategy seem to be the two biggest variables at Chicagoland. When and how do you make the decision to sacrifice tires for track position, or depending on the circumstances, track position for tires?

"I think it just depends on how your car is working. If your car is driving well, one that keeps you up toward the front all day because it's fast, then just two tires can keep you pretty quick. In that situation, you could make a big gain at the end by just taking on two tires and maintaining your track position. Even some guys who are behind and don't have their car the way they want, by taking on two tires, the track position they gain helps out more than four tires would. But when you get right down to it, I think Chicago is a track where if your car's good, then it doesn't matter whether you take two tires or four."

-jgr-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Greg Biffle , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne , J.J. Yeley , Denny Hamlin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing