TONY STEWART High Stakes Chase Rolls to High Banks of Dover ATLANTA (Sept. 19, 2007) -- With one race down in the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, Tony Stewart rolls into Dover (Del.) International Speedway eyeing the 10-point lead currently...
High Stakes Chase Rolls to High Banks of Dover
ATLANTA (Sept. 19, 2007) -- With one race down in the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, Tony Stewart rolls into Dover (Del.) International Speedway eyeing the 10-point lead currently held over him by Chase point leader Jimmie Johnson.
Stewart's third-place finish last Sunday at New Hampshire lopped 20 points off the margin held by Johnson coming into the Chase, and the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing is looking to deal another points blow to Johnson and fellow Chase contenders in Sunday's Dodge Dealers 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race.
The high-banked Dover oval, nicknamed "The Monster Mile" for its tight and fast layout, has been a historically good venue for Stewart. The nine-year Nextel Cup veteran has scored two wins and nine top-five finishes while leading over 1,000 laps in his 17 previous races at Dover.
Recent history, however, has not been good to Stewart. After 12 consecutives finishes of 11th or better since his Nextel Cup rookie year in 1999, Stewart has not finished better than 15th in his last five visits to Dover.
But ask Stewart what the past has to do with the present, and his standard reply will be, "Not much." That's because even with his past success and recent struggles at Dover, it has little to no bearing on this weekend's event. It's a new race, and anything can happen.
And the race within the race is the Chase for the Nextel Cup. As Stewart and 11 other Chase competitors vie for the championship, they do it among 31 other drivers racing for the win, pride and perhaps even a job. It's the only professional sport where the post-season coexists with the regular season.
Stewart has seen both sides of this racing conundrum. After competing in the first two editions of the Chase and winning the title in 2005, the reigning Nextel Cup champion missed the then, 10-driver Chase in 2006. Used to racing for wins and a championship in the final 10 races, Stewart could race only for wins and bragging rights, something he did three times as he took the checkered flag at Kansas, Atlanta and Texas.
That experience gave the Columbus, Ind.-native a unique perspective on the Chase, and it's an experience he brings with him as he prepares for round two this weekend at Dover.
What were some of the things you learned from being in the Chase in 2004 and 2005 that you'll apply this year?
"My approach to the Chase is the same way it's been any other time I've been in a point race -- you go out there, you lead laps, you win races and the points take care of itself. I know that sounds like a simple formula, but the reason we got to this point is by following that theory. Every week we go out and we try to lead laps and we try to win races. That's what got us here. There's no reason to change that. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel."
How do you compete against 11 guys for a championship while still competing with 42 guys for a race win?
"For the 12 that are competing, we're still racing against 31 other guys just like we've been since the beginning of the year. Probably for the first three or four weeks, I don't think we'll be too conscious of where we are on the race track. It's still going to be business as usual. But as we get closer to the end of the season -- probably with two or three races to go -- you're going to be singling out guys a little bit more and paying closer attention to where they are on the race track, what position they're in, and how many laps they've led. The further we get into it, the more the points are going to separate the field, and you're going to see exactly who you're racing against for the championship. There probably won't be 12 guys with two or three races left. It'll be down to four or five guys who have a shot at it."
If you're out of the Chase, how tough is it to race around the top-12 drivers competing for the championship?
"Last year was the first time, and hopefully last time, we're in that situation -- being on the outside of the Chase. It's very uncomfortable to race around the guys who are running for a championship. You're so scared to make a mistake around them and cause them a problem. You can't race like you would normally race. It's a very frustrating situation. There seems to be a lot less give-and-take than normal, and that makes it even more frustrating. It is what it is. I think the idea of having a Chase is an awesome deal, but having been on both sides of it, I think it's a very weird deal. It makes it very uncomfortable for the other 31 guys that have to race around those 12 guys that are on the race track racing for a championship. It's a lot more fun being in the top-12 than it is being on the outside of the top-12 and trying to race for wins and having to worry about those guys at the same time."
Did you change the way you raced guys who were competing for the championship last year?
"When you were up there racing with those guys, it made you timid and it made you think, 'Well, should I just let them go, or should I just go ahead and race my race?' In the first two years of the Chase, I know the consideration I got from guys and how much I appreciated it. Instead of just saying you want to race your own race, you say maybe you should give this guy an extra break here and there. It made it frustrating to race because you weren't racing your own race that way. You were racing a race in a race, so to speak.
"You just have to show the top-12 respect. You still want to win races, but at the same time, you still have to be mindful that there are 12 guys racing for a series championship. You try to race hard, but at the same time, you have to be respectful and give them the room they deserve."
Do you see more aggressive driving during the Chase?
"Well, you still have 43 drivers who want to win races. The guys who are outside of that top-12, they still have sponsors to impress, programs to get on track, and for some, jobs to earn. Other guys just have something to prove. Guys aren't going to be content to just sit there and ride the rest of the season out. They're going to want to prove to everybody that they belong in this series. But I don't think there's more or less aggressiveness on the race track. It's always been aggressive."
You've proven to be very versatile, as you've won in every single racing series you've competed in with the exception of sports cars. Do you feel that gives you an advantage with the Car of Tomorrow (CoT), as Dover is one of the five CoT venues in the final 10 races of the season?
"In this day and age, the technology is so much more important. It's getting like Indy car and Formula 1 racing. The technology and the engineers in the sport make it harder for the drivers to be the deciding factor. In this day and age, it's a 3,400-pound car and it's either right or it's wrong. If it's not right, it's hard to carry a 3,400-pound race car and make it do what it doesn't want to do. In sprint cars and midgets, because they're lighter, it's easier to throw them around and you can kind of make them do what you want. But in this day and age with NASCAR being as technical as it is and as advanced as it is technology-wise, it's going to be hard for the drivers to make the difference. It's more about the team, and we've got a great team at Joe Gibbs Racing."
Is Dover the type of race track where a driver can make up for a race car that isn't handling well or an engine that's down on horsepower?
"To a certain extent, yes. With the way the cars slide around on the race track late in the day, there are times when a driver can make up for what the car won't do. They can move around on the race track and help themselves out by finding a faster groove."
Dover's surface is concrete. Do you have to alter your driving style when you race on concrete?
"I don't think you drive it any differently. But because it is concrete, the track has a lot more bumps than an asphalt track would. There are seams in Dover's surface and places where they've cut the concrete for expansion. Those sections shift and change, and every year when you go there the bumps are a little bit different than they were the year before. Dover is a track that's constantly changing. But it's one of those places where you really can't change your driving style. You still have to do the same things you always do. It's just a matter of finding the package that's right for that race track. But other than that, you go through the same set of scenarios and challenges you would on any asphalt track -- either the car is going to be tight or it's going to be loose."
How much of a role does aerodynamics play at Dover in comparison to handling?
"Both are important. Air is free, so you want your aero package to give you a lot of downforce. But at the same time, with all the bumps Dover has, you have to work on the mechanical balance too. It's a track that requires every aspect of your racing program for you to be on the money."