DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 18, 2000) - Last year at this time, Tony Stewart, driver of The Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix, came to Daytona International Speedway as a bona fide rookie. He had no starts behind the wheel of a NASCAR Winston Cup...
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 18, 2000) - Last year at this time, Tony Stewart, driver of The Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix, came to Daytona International Speedway as a bona fide rookie. He had no starts behind the wheel of a NASCAR Winston Cup Series stock car, and his drafting experience in a 3,400-pound race car was limited. Yet, he put the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac on the outside pole, flanking defending Winston Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon.
One year later, Stewart returns to the 2.5-mile superspeedway as a championship contender, having won the 1999 Rookie of the Year title en route to scoring three wins (Richmond on 9/11, Phoenix on 11/7 and Homestead on 11/14) and two poles (Martinsville on 4/16 and Bristol on 8/27), while racking up 13 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes. Stewart ended the 1999 season fourth in the championship point standings - the first time since 1966 that a rookie had finished his season within the top-five in points.
How would you compare last year's Speedweeks to this year's Speedweeks?
"It's been a lot more relaxing in that I know what to expect this year versus last year when we didn't have any idea what to expect. Obviously, qualifying the Home Depot Pontiac on the outside pole last year opened up a lot of eyes and created a media frenzy that we don't really have as much of this year. The frenzy that we have this year, we're handling it a lot better. It's a lot more organized because we're more experienced in dealing with it."
You've already had the opportunity to work the draft in the Bud Shootout, the Gatorade Twin 125s and in numerous practice sessions. How's that going and how do you feel heading into Sunday's Daytona 500?
"The first part of the week with the Shootout, I didn't feel like I did a very good job in the draft. But in the 125 and in the last couple of practices I felt like I've made some big gains and gotten myself in a position where I'm competitive. I feel that while we may not be able to win the race, we should be able to stay in the top-10 the whole day."
Between the new shock rules and the strong showing by Yates-powered cars, what will it take to win this year's Daytona 500?
"For us, it's going to take about two more tenths that way we see it. The Yates cars have great power right now and they've got their cars driving well. We just need to make sure we get our car driving as well as possible. We feel like we've got the Home Depot Pontiac pulling up in the draft really well, if we can get our car to not scrub off speed through the corners, we feel we can be even better yet."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix:
Now that you're not able to build your own shock and spring package due to NASCAR's new superspeedway rules package, what have you been working on to find speed?
"All we've done is maximize what we already had. We've just been fine-tuning on the car and not doing anything big - just concentrating on the little things. We've gotten better each day. Now, we're right on the verge of being the best that we can be. We're at the point that if we make the car better in one area, we'll start hurting it in another."