Loudon II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART The Simple Life ATLANTA (Sept. 12, 2006) - A simple sport is now much simpler for Tony Stewart. After coming up 16 points short in his bid to make the top-10 following the 26th NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race of the season at...

TONY STEWART
The Simple Life

ATLANTA (Sept. 12, 2006) - A simple sport is now much simpler for Tony Stewart.

After coming up 16 points short in his bid to make the top-10 following the 26th NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race of the season at Richmond (Va.), Stewart is not in the 10-driver, 10-race Chase for the Championship. That means Stewart is unconcerned with points, because if he can't be in the top-10, there is little difference between being 11th or 111th.

That leaves the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing with an intense focus during the last 10 races of the Nextel Cup season, which begins this Sunday with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon.

Winning is all that matters to the two-time and reigning series champion, and if it can't be another championship, then it'll be as many races as he and his Greg Zipadelli-led team can win between New Hampshire and the season finale at Homestead (Fla.) Nov. 19.

The longest-tenured full-time driver/crew chief relationship in the Nextel Cup garage is the one between Stewart and Zipadelli. Going on eight years now, the duo have combined to win 26 races, 10 poles, 104 top-fives and 163 top-10s while leading more than 8,400 laps. And outside of the 274 point races they've competed in, they've secured four non-point victories - the Budweiser Shootout in 2001 and 2002, the Gatorade Duel in 2005 and The Winston Open in 1999.

Winning is what The Home Depot Racing Team does. Of the 10 venues that make up the final 10 races of the season, Stewart has won at seven of them to account for 11 of his 26 victories. And the three tracks where he has yet to win - Talladega (Ala.), Kansas and Texas - Stewart has still been a contender.

He has six second-place finishes at Talladega, the most recent coming during the series' trip there in April. He has two top-fives and four top-10s in five career starts at Kansas. And Stewart returns to Texas having notched his best finish there back in April with a third-place result.

While his primary sponsor sells hardware, Stewart collects it. Trophies, plaques and various mementos chronicle the Indiana native's racing achievements, which outside of NASCAR are highlighted by his 1997 IRL IndyCar Series championship, the 1995 USAC Triple Crown - where he won the series' Sprint, Midget and Silver Crowns divisions in a single year - and three karting titles. Shoehorned among those awards are trophies from tracks big and small, from local dirt tracks to back-to-back NASCAR Busch Series wins at Daytona (Fla.) in 2005 and 2006.

While the Chase and another Nextel Cup championship aren't in Stewart's cards, the versatile driver refuses to fold. With two Nextel Cup wins (July 2000 and July 2005) and an IRL victory (1998) already under his belt at New Hampshire, Stewart aims to add a fourth trophy from the Granite State when he lights up the field in Sunday's Sylvania 300.

Has a simple sport gotten simpler because without having to worry about points, you now have the opportunity to gamble and do whatever it takes to win?

"Yes. We're now able to do all those things that we would not normally be able to do in a points situation when you can't take those chances. When it comes down to a fuel mileage deal, we have the flexibility now to do that. We can gamble on pit strategy. I guess the pressure is off - not that that's what we we're looking to do, by any means. We have the flexibility now to take each race and strictly do what we've always wanted to do, and that's just to try and win the race. Even though you try and win the race, a lot of times in a points situation, you can't take chances doing that. It's our goal each week to win. We weren't able to always do that, but now, for sure, 100 percent, we can go out there and strictly do whatever it takes to win."

You've won at seven of the remaining 10 venues. At those tracks where you haven't won, you've done extremely well. Do you look at this stretch of races as an opportunity to serve as a spoiler and take some of the attention away from the Chase contenders?

"I don't think we look at it that way. We're going to go out and worry about ourselves. Obviously, there are 10 guys out there each week that we're going to try to be careful around, because we realize they are racing for a championship. I know how much it meant to me that all of the other competitors were careful around us when we were trying to win our championship last year. We're going to try to be as courteous as they would be. It's kind of hard to go out and race people hard while at the same time making sure that you're not putting any of those 10 guys in jeopardy. We're going to do our best to race as hard as we can, and race hard around the guys that are in the Chase, but at the same time, try and win races."

What advice do you have for Denny Hamlin - your rookie teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing and a first-time Chase participant - in terms of what he needs to do on and off the track during the Chase?

"I think this week will be an eye-opening experience for him about what it's like to be in the chase, especially having to go to New York and be a part of the media circus up there. I think that'll be a really good taste of it. Week to week we can be there to kind of help him out and do the things that it's going to take to keep his mind focused on the task at hand and not let the other distractions get to him."

You have some really good friends in the Chase. Are you rooting for anyone in particular?

"It's hard because there are a lot of people in there that are my friends. I can go from person to person and state reasons why I hope they win it, but it's hard. The good thing is that there are a lot of my friends that are in the Chase that have the opportunity to win their first championship. My good friend Matt Kenseth has won one already. I get along well with Jeff Gordon. It would be neat to see him win his fifth one. Everybody that's in the chase, I respect. Kyle Busch and I have come a long way. Jeff Burton is somone I've always respected as a driver. There are a lot of guys in the Chase. All but two of them have ever won a championship before, so there are eight guys that are going for their first and two guys that are going for multiple championships. Just the fact that there are eight guys that have the opportunity to get their first one is exciting in and of itself. That doesn't mean that I don't want Jeff or Matt to win too, because I get along really well with Matt and I really respect Jeff Gordon a lot too. No matter what happens, there are 10 really good guys and good teams that are in the chase. No matter who wins, they've had to earn it and they deserve it."

Explain a lap around New Hampshire.

"It's a big motor deal. With the corners being so tight, you've got to put a lot of gear in the car to get it up off the corner. Forward bite is always an issue there too - trying to get the car to go forward. So, it's hard to get up off the corners. Then you've got long straightaways where you can kind of relax a little bit. Coming into the corners, you use a lot of brake, and it's hard to not only get the car stopped, but to get it to turn. Then you go through that challenge all over again."

So, is a fast lap all about throttle control?

"No, not necessarily. A lot of times when you get in the gas, you're able to stay in the gas. It's just a matter of having a good enough handling car to where you can get into the corner, roll through the center, and then get in the gas and stay in the gas when you do get back in the throttle."

While you've won at New Hampshire, you've also had races where you've struggled. How can one race weekend turn out great and another turn into one you'd rather forget?

"If you miss on something it can be a miserable day. It seems like you don't see but three or four guys during the day that really hit it. That's what makes a day there miserable when you miss. It's just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day. And it seems like you can have bad track position, but if you have a car that drives well, you can drive your way to the front. It's not a situation you cringe at if you have a good driving car."

Is New Hampshire a good place to race?

"Obviously, I like it because I've had success there. But at the same time, it's a tough track to pass on. You can be a couple of tenths faster than a guy, but it still takes you 20 laps to get by him. There are other tracks on the circuit where it's hard to pass, but we still go out and put on good shows there, too. Every race at Loudon seems to be a pretty good race. So, I like it. I enjoy racing there even though it is hard to pass. But when you've got a good car, it's always fun to race."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch