TONY STEWART West Coast Offense ATLANTA (Aug. 30, 2006) - According to some, the top-10 drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship point standings are already locked in for the all-important chase for the championship. Ninety points...
West Coast Offense
ATLANTA (Aug. 30, 2006) - According to some, the top-10 drivers in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship point standings are already locked in for the all-important chase for the championship.
Ninety points separate 11th place Kasey Kahne from 10th place Mark Martin with only two races remaining before the drivers in the top-10 - and only the top-10 - become eligible to compete for this year's title in a 10-race shootout beginning Sept. 17 at New Hampshire.
If history is any indication, Kahne and anyone else behind him face an insurmountable deficit to reach the top-10. Thirty-five points is the largest margin a driver has ever overcome to earn a chase berth with two races remaining, which Jeremy Mayfield did in 2004 - the first year of the chase - by finishing 16th at California and first at Richmond (Va.).
But that history spans just two years, and no one understands this more than Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Stewart is eighth in points, 97 markers ahead of Kahne entering Sunday's California 500, the penultimate race before the chase field is set following next Saturday night's 400-mile race at Richmond.
History says that Stewart is set to qualify for his third straight chase, but when 156 points can be won or lost in a single race, recent history can skew quickly. That's why Stewart isn't altering his approach at California.
Stewart earned the distinction of two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion by going into each and every race intent on winning. His reasoning is simple - the winner of the race gets the most points, and the driver at the end of the season with the most points wins the championship.
As Stewart likes to say when asked of his strategy, "We're not launching the space shuttle." Instead, he's launching a title defense built upon the one basic tenet of competition - winning.
With the Chase for the Championship almost upon us, how will you approach it?
"I'll tell you the same thing we told everybody from day one. We take each race one at a time. We just try to get the most amount of points and the best finish we can get each week. If you win races, the points take care of themselves. You just go out and take it one week at a time. You don't worry about what's going to happen the next week. You don't worry about what happened the week before. You do the best you can. When you leave the track you look at the point sheet. You know where you're at. You can't really plan ahead. As race car drivers and as race teams, our job is to go out and do the best we can each week. With that attitude in mind, that's how we've done what we've done in the Cup Series. We've stayed in the top-seven for seven consecutive years."
What do you think about the Chase opening up the championship to anyone in the top-10, with the days of 200- to 300-point leads now only a memory?
"For so many years the Cup Series was about winning the title based upon what guy had the most points at the end of the year because he was the most consistent. The chase for the championship is just a change in time. I'm not sure it really matters what I feel about it. It is what it is. I think it's been a positive thing for our sport, but we'll just sit back and see what happens. I'm not sure if any of us like or dislike it, but we can't do anything about it. The year's version of the chase hasn't even started, so we'll just ride it out and see how it works."
Do you think other teams and drivers who aren't in the top-10 will change their approach at California and Richmond?
"If you are solidly in the top-10, it will be business as usual. But if you're 11th in points and have a shot at getting in the top-10 and it's down to the last two races, you're going to race just like you are racing for the championship. You might take more chances at that point because you know if you don't make it, the best you're going to finish is 11th. I can see where guys who are on the bubble might race a little bit different in the last couple of races if it looks like they may not make the top-10."
Fontana looks like a lot of the other 1.5-mile to 2-mile D-shaped ovals that the Nextel Cup Series visits. Is it?
"California is a lot like Michigan. I like to call it Michigan West. I'm not sure that it has the amount of banking that Michigan has, but it is a flatter track than Michigan. The way you approach the weekend is pretty much the same as far as setups on The Home Depot Chevrolet go. You just don't have the banking to help you like you do at Michigan."
What percentages would you put on a comparison between the importance of horsepower and handling at California?
"It's probably about 50/50. You need to have an aerodynamic car, but you've got to have the horsepower to pull it, too. You can't have one and not the other and expect to go to California and win the race."
California is a track where a driver can search for different grooves, as opposed to some other tracks on the circuit where there is really only one true groove. As a driver, do you appreciate that more?
"It's nice knowing that as a driver you can help yourself out and you're not relying so much on the car. Regardless of what everyone else is doing, you can find a way to help yourself out. It makes you feel good knowing that because the place is so wide, you can move around, and basically, earn your money that day."
At what point do you start to move around on the race track to find a better handle for your race car?
"As soon as you feel like you're not where you need to be. If you feel like you're slower than the pace you need to be running, you're going to move up the race track and find a place that helps balance your race car. Really, from the drop of the green flag, you do it from there on out."
Why is it that races at D-shaped ovals seem to be won in fairly dominating fashion?
"If a guy gets going and gets his car balanced, then he'll tend to run away. That's just the characteristic of that kind of track. It's fast, it's flat and momentum is so important there, that if a guy is off just a little, he's off a lot. The drivers like it from the standpoint that if you can find a way to get around it a little better, then it'll help them in the long run. You end up racing the race track instead of each other."
Track position and pit strategy seem to be the two biggest variables at California. 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 California is a track where if your car's good, then it doesn't matter whether you take two tires or four."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
As we get closer to the chase for the championship, does winning the championship last year put more pressure on you this year?
"When you win a second championship, you carry a little bit more of a load in responsibility. Our expectation level has gone up, so there's more pressure to live up to those expectations. We know what we're expected to accomplish. There's just a little more pressure to perform this year.
"If we don't go out and perform, I look at that as being my fault because I didn't do what Tony needed. We know that if I do my job and Tony does his job, we're successful. We have been for seven-and-a-half years.
"We've had some really, really good race cars just about everywhere we've gone this year. We're just not making them work like we did last year. But we've got a couple of really good race tracks coming up for us. We can get things turned around, build up that momentum, get a little bit more confidence, and head into the last part of the season ready to go."
Are there any races before and during the chase the team is targeting as venues where you can really pick up some points?
"They're all important. You race the way you've always raced and you approach each race the same. Obviously, you keep up with technology and the changes each race brings you, but you continue to do what worked for you in the past and hope that it brings it home for you."