Kansas: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Fill 'Er Up, We're Going to Kansas ATLANTA (Sept. 25, 2007) -- Tony Stewart returns to Kansas Speedway in a much different capacity than he did last year when he visited the 1.5-mile oval. The driver of the No. 20 Home ...

TONY STEWART
Fill 'Er Up, We're Going to Kansas

ATLANTA (Sept. 25, 2007) -- Tony Stewart returns to Kansas Speedway in a much different capacity than he did last year when he visited the 1.5-mile oval.

The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot/Ryobi Lithium Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing is currently second in points among the 12 drivers competing in this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup. Only two points separate Stewart from championship leader Jeff Gordon, and just 10 points separate the top-five Chase drivers.

Last year at this time Stewart was a Chase spectator, having missed the cutoff for the final, 10-race trophy dash by 16 points. And while there was some initial disappointment in missing the Chase, Stewart and the rest of his orange-clad Joe Gibbs Racing crew quickly put it behind them, focusing instead on winning races and laying claim to the only title available to them -- Chase spoiler.

Their proverbial shot across the bow came at Kansas, where with absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Greg Zipadelli-led No. 20 team gambled that their Home Depot Chevrolet Monte Carlo could go the final 71 laps on a single tank of fuel. Their gambled paid off, as Stewart led the final five laps of the 267-lap race and coasted across the finish line with an empty tank to score his 27th career Nextel Cup victory and his third of the season, beating Casey Mears by 12.422 seconds. Two more late-season wins would follow, with back-to-back triumphs at Atlanta and Texas.

Kansas was the team's first race win via fuel mileage, and 36 races later, it remains so. The circumstances of being out of the Chase allowed the team to kick conservatism to the curb.

That is not the case in 2007. With a third Nextel Cup championship in their sights, Stewart and Co., know that rolling the dice in the fashion they did in 2006 isn't an option come Sunday's LifeLock 400.

The team comes to Kansas in championship form, having finished third and ninth in the first two Chase races at New Hampshire and Dover, respectively. The team's track record at Kansas suggests continued top-line performance, as Stewart has only one finish outside the top-10 in his six career starts there. Three top-fives and five top-10s gives Stewart an average finish of sixth at Kansas, with Stewart also having a lap completion rate of 100 percent.

With the LifeLock 400 holding round three on the Chase calendar, Stewart's sights are set on locking up a third Nextel Cup title. Continued success at Kansas will put him seven steps closer to that goal.

You started off the Chase well with a third-place finish at New Hampshire and then rallied to post a solid top-10 finish the next week at Dover. How important is it to get off to a good start during the Chase?

"Without knowing what the next eight weeks are going to be like, you don't know whether it's important or not. It sure doesn't hurt your feelings after you've put up a good run. It's kind of common sense. If you run bad, you're not real happy about it. If you run good, you're normally pretty happy about it."

Dover saw some Chase drivers falter. Can a driver afford to have a mulligan, or are the majority of the Chase drivers performing well enough that no Chase driver can afford to have a sub-par finish?

"Mulligans are in golf. This is racing. We don't have mulligans here. You have what you have. A mulligan is when you don't have to count what you did. If Dover was a mulligan, then we don't have to count that week's points, right? So there are no such things as mulligans in auto racing.

"If everybody has a bad week, then everybody can afford to have a mulligan. But if half the field has a bad week and the other five guys stay in the top-five every race, you can't afford it. You just don't know. It's hard to say. At the end of the year you can evaluate it, but it's so unpredictable. You just don't know what's going to happen with the guys at the front of the pack. If they don't have any problems, you're not going to be able to afford it. But if everybody has one bad week, then everybody can afford one. That way it sets everybody even again."

Is there a time when a driver who has had some poor runs needs to go into catch-up mode?

"Yeah, the season finale at Homestead (Fla.). You can ask me that question after we run Sunday and the answer may be totally different. It's strictly a week-to-week deal. All of the questions the media ask are all theoretical questions. Well, I'm not a philosopher. None of us can predict this. If we could, we'd be bookies in Las Vegas making millions of dollars betting on these races instead of driving in them. And it's a heck of a lot safer sitting in a chair in that dark room letting cocktail waitresses bring you drinks. I don't have the answers. Nobody has the answers. All we can do is speculate on what's going to happen until each week actually happens. So, all we can do is guess on what's going to happen. If any of us can predict the top-10 positions in Sunday's race -- you're a genius, let alone figuring out how the next eight weeks are going to be."

You won last year's race at Kansas by successfully gambling on fuel mileage. Prior to that, had you ever won a race on fuel mileage?

"No, but we've lost them that way, so it was nice to finally get one. It was a battle between the driver and the crew chief. The crew chief is yelling at you every lap to save fuel, but you're not slowing down enough and he knows it because he's looking at the stop watch.

"When you've got guys behind you, you know you don't want to give those spots up in case they happen make it on fuel. So, I tried to save as much fuel as I could and still hold guys off.

"We were able to take the chance because we had nothing to lose. Not being in the Chase gave us that opportunity to take the chance and go ahead and run for it. It's not a chance we can take this year."

When you took the checkered flag you were out of gas. What were your thoughts inside the car when you knew you had run out?

"When we were coming down the backstretch, I asked how many laps we had left and they said, 'You're coming to the white (flag).' Then I saw the needle start bouncing and it wasn't on zero, but it was down to three pounds and bouncing up and down. We came down the frontstretch and it started losing pressure when we went into turn one. Then it caught up for a second, but as soon as we came off turn two, it lost pressure immediately. It's just important to get it kicked out of gear right away and just get down low on the race track and take the shortest distance around. We just coasted around and hoped we had enough of a lead to stay out front. Turned out we did."

Kansas and its sister track -- Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., -- 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."

You won at Chicagoland back in July. Does that give you an advantage this weekend at Kansas?

"I'm hoping that it's going to. The two tracks are so alike. You'd like to think that if you had success at one track that you'd have success at the other. But at the same time, there are no guarantees in this sport. As fast as technology changes, what worked a month ago might not work now. We won't know anything until we hit the track."

Have Kansas and Chicagoland matured in the same way since they were both constructed at the same time?

"It seems like in the last couple of years in particular that both tracks have come around. They've seasoned and it's gotten to where we can finally get off the bottom and move around the race track more. That's what you want as a driver. That's what the teams want. You don't want to be stuck following guys and not being able to move around and pass. It just makes you confident that you know you have options when you go into the corner where you can help yourself out as a driver. It makes this place a lot more fun to race when you're able to move around and find different grooves. The first couple of times we came here we all dreaded it because it was just single-file racing, and all you heard us talk about was aero push. Now, you can't really use the aero push excuse too much anymore because you have the ability to move around on the race track more."

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."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Casey Mears
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing