Hungry for a Win in Banquet 400
ATLANTA (Sept. 27, 2006) - All Tony Stewart wants to do is win. Out of the Chase for the Championship for the first time in his eight-year career in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, points are disposable for the first time in his Nextel Cup career. So, it's win or bust for the two-time and reigning series champion.
Eleventh is the best point finish Stewart can earn this year, as the top-10 is reserved for those competing for this year's championship. And an 11th place point finish inspires Stewart about as much as C-SPAN makes for must see TV.
Stewart's only motivation is winning races, something the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet has done 26 times in his Nextel Cup career.
After a tough outing last Sunday at Dover (Del.) when an early-race crash left Stewart 33rd in the rundown, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver comes to Kansas intent on racing up front.
The 1.5-mile D-shaped oval has been a solid venue for Stewart. In his five Nextel Cup starts at Kansas since the series began racing there in 2001, Stewart has notched two top-fives and four top-10s to secure an average finish of eighth.
With Stewart hungry for a win, Sunday's race at Kansas has an appropriate name - the Banquet 400.
Kansas and its sister track - Chicagoland - 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."
Have the two tracks matured in the same way since they were both constructed at the same time?
"It's been impressive to see how much the groove has matured, to where it's moved up, giving us more racing room and more options. At some tracks it takes years for the groove to move up, but Kansas and Chicagoland have been very similar in the way the groove has moved up the race track. It's made the racing better."
With grip being an issue since Kansas is still a relatively new track, where are the passing zones?
"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 Kansas. 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 Kansas is a track where if your car's good, then it doesn't matter whether you take two tires or four."
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."
What percentages would you put on a comparison between the importance of horsepower and handling at Kansas?
"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 Kansas and win the race."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
Are you looking at the rest of the season solely on a week-to-week basis, or are you also taking a big picture approach and looking at using these last eight races as preparation for next year?
"If all of a sudden we're going to go out and win five races because we changed our program around, then we weren't doing the right things during the first 26 races. We'll probably be a little more risky with fuel mileage. We'll probably be a little more risky in taking tires at some places where we wouldn't have if we had a top-five or a top-10 run going. There is a possibility of us being a little more aggressive with new parts and pieces that we've been working on to do a little R&D (research & development). If something happens and we have a bad day, it's not going to kill us like it would've if we were in the Chase. But that's about all. It's business as usual. The biggest thing is everybody just keeping their heads up and going out and running like we have the past two weeks. My goal, personally, is to get on a tear like we did last year and have eight or nine top-five, top-10 finishes and let everyone know if we were there in the Chase, things might be different. That's all you can do."
By not being in the Chase, has the amount of work you're doing changed, or is it just the scope of your work that's changed?
"It is different. We're not triple-checking a lot of dumb things that you would only do when you're caught up in the Chase. That doesn't mean we're not doing our checklists and doing the things we're supposed to be doing - the things that got us here - but what we're doing now is we're working harder at trying to understand the packages that we're running. We're spending more time on the seven-post 'shake rig' and doing more research and development than we would have if we were in the Chase. When you're in the Chase, you're just trying to make sure you don't leave anything undone. Our efforts have shifted a little bit. It's, unfortunately, a little bit lighter. We do have a fairly decent sized point lead over 12th place, and obviously 11th is still a big deal because it still does pay a lot of money and it still means a trip to New York. But 11th will be our worst finish in our eight years together. So, it's a little better than 12th, but it's nowhere near as good as being in the top-10."
Has being out of the Chase allowed you to spend more time on the Car of Tomorrow, which will debut next year at Bristol (Tenn.)?
"We're working on it. We've been working on it. We've got a dedicated group of guys at the shop that are aggressively working on it. We've got some stuff that's probably ready to change. I'll personally get a little more involved with it and may do a test and take somebody just to go work on the car. I want to get my guys used to working on it just to see what the differences are and what some of the things are that we're going to have to deal with next year."
Is there anything in particular the No. 20 team is doing to help the No. 11 team in the Chase?
"We'll do whatever we have to do to help the 11. We'll do whatever we need to do to help the 18. From the company's standpoint, it's about us winning races, getting the 18 to be consistent and getting back on track and doing everything we can to help the 11 win a championship. We have so many good people and our program is so big that it's not like we have to sacrifice anything for them."
Is there any value in the No. 20 team's experience in running for a championship that can be transferred to the No. 11 team, or is it something that has to be experienced by the players directly involved with a championship?
"They just need to relax and do what got them there, and that's being consistent. They've won two races at the same race track and haven't led a lot of laps, but they've shown that they can go out and be consistent, not make a lot of mistakes and make good adjustments. Denny (Hamlin, driver of the No. 11) is very intense and intelligent and understanding of the big picture. That's their big thing. The pressure is not on them, I don't think. Expectations from the outside are for them not to do it. It's on the 24, the 48 and those guys. If they can go do what they did at New Hampshire where they had a 10th place car, but all day long they worked on it and at the end with the way things played-out, they ended up with a top-five. That's what you've got to do. If they can do that a bunch more times, then come Homestead (Fla.) I think they'll have a shot at it."