More than one home stretch begins in New Hampshire. ATLANTA (Sept. 9, 2002) - Ten races remain since the marathon-like NASCAR Winston Cup Series kicked-off its 2002 season at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, some 205 days ago. And despite...
More than one home stretch begins in New Hampshire.
ATLANTA (Sept. 9, 2002) - Ten races remain since the marathon-like NASCAR Winston Cup Series kicked-off its 2002 season at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, some 205 days ago. And despite being as low as 43rd in points following the Feb. 12 Daytona 500, The Home Depot Racing Team have worked themselves into championship contention during a roller-coaster season that has seem them earn three victories, two poles, 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes while enduring six DNFs (Did Not Finish).
But with many other top teams riding roller-coasters of their own, the championship is still very much in play. For Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac, he is fifth in the championship point standings, 118 markers behind point leader Sterling Marlin. But just nine points behind Marlin is Mark Martin, while third-place Jimmie Johnson and fourth-place Jeff Gordon are only 72 and 82 points back, respectively. No more than 271 points separate the top-10 drivers in the standings.
With round 27 of 36 on the Winston Cup schedule coming Sept. 15 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, the championship chase kicks into high gear. It's a fitting locale for The Home Depot Racing Team, as five of its members hail from the New England area.
How do you see yourself figuring into the point championship?
"I take it race by race, but I firmly believe this Home Depot team has a shot at winning this thing, despite the roller-coaster season we've had. Historically, this is the point in the season where we really come on strong. The complexion of this championship changes so drastically from week to week that anyone in the top-10 still has a realistic shot at it. Nobody can say that anyone is out of it, by any means. This is definitely the closest we've ever been in the point standings at this point in the season. It seems like we always dig ourselves into a hole for the first eight to 10 races and then we're never really able to recover from it. But this year we're in a lot better shape than we have been in the past. We're close enough to the front now where we can legitimately make a run at this thing. But we still need to take this thing race by race. You can't plan anything past a week. So many things change and with so many variables being out of your control each week, there's no way you can plan what you're going to do. All you can do is prepare as best as you can and give it 100 percent each week. Everybody in every department of our race team is doing everything they know to do to make things as reliable, as safe and as fast as possible. The other 42 variables that I'm out there with on the race track, plus all the other scenarios, just have to work out for us."
The championship is pretty wide open. You and a lot of other drivers are still very much in the running. Do you think about point racing with 10 races remaining in the season?
"No. Winning races is all we care about, to be honest. If you win races the points will take care of itself. There are too many guys and too many variables to even think about point racing. No one really has anything to protect. Everyone has to go out there and try to win as many races as they can. Everyone needs the points because there are just too many good teams bunched together at the top of the standings for anyone to start going conservative."
Would you rather be leading the points or are you happy where you are?
"Even though we missed a big opportunity to capitalize on the points last week at Richmond (Va.), I'm exactly where I want to be in this points race. I don't want to be leading the points right now. I want to be the guy hunting these other guys down. I still want to run my race each week and I still want to have the mentality that I'm racing for the win. If you win the races the points will take care of itself. If I go out there and do my job, we'll force Sterling (Marlin) or Mark (Martin) to do something. They're not forcing us to have to do anything. We're forcing them to have to remain consistent, and that's hard to do. With the luck we've had this year, we've got nothing to lose. We've got everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose. They've got everything to lose and nothing to gain right now. That's why I feel like we're in a better position than they are right now."
Does the current point system need to be altered, favoring wins over consistency?
"That's a question I was asked a lot at last year's awards banquet. The way I look at it is that it's the same for everybody, so it's fair. There's nothing unfair about it. It rewards consistency. The system that's in place is pretty good, and we all know what it is when we show up in Daytona at the beginning of the year. It works for me, and it obviously seems to have worked for NASCAR for however long they've had it in place."
How would it change things if the point system were altered and more points were rewarded for a win?
"I think you'd see a lot more guys crashing, throwing around 3,400-pound race cars. If someone takes a chance and makes a mistake, and they're in front of you, it's pretty hard to stop 3,400 pounds once it's moving. Now we have that to a certain degree now, but what I'm saying is that it'll become a lot more common if the points system is altered to favor race wins over consistency. That would put all of us at more of a risk, in my opinion."
NEW ENGLANDERS on NEW HAMPSHIRE
GREG ZIPADELLI, #20 crew chief from New Britain, Conn. - "We were at New Hampshire for a Busch North/Modified doubleheader in 1990 when I was a crew chief for Mike McLaughlin. Mike went out and won both of them. It was awesome. No one's been able to do that since - win the Mod race and the Busch North show all in the same day. That was probably one of my best days in racing.
"It's where I grew up. I've raced at Loudon since they held their very first race. It was two and a half hours from home and for 12 years I've been going there. I think we won six or seven races there between Busch North and the Modifieds. I worked on the #99 car in Winston Cup in 1998 and won at New Hampshire with them. I've gotten to win in everything I've gone there with. When we did it with The Home Depot car two years ago at the July race, it was pretty special."
JASON SHAPIRO, #20 mechanic from Essex, Conn. - "When I was there with Glenn Sullivan (as his Busch North crew chief in 1994), we made a bet. He had qualified really well in the three or four races leading up to New Hampshire. But he was really struggling when we unloaded there. I told Glenn that if he qualified in the top-15, he could shave my head bald while I sat in my underwear at the Grist Mill restaurant. Unfortunately for me, he qualified 14th.
"I made the bet so I lived up to it. I went to the Grist Mill, stripped down to my boxers, and let Glenn shave my head. When Glenn was done, I looked for my clothes but they were nowhere to be found. The guys on the team had taken them. So there I sat in the Grist Mill, bald and in my boxers. I will never forget that day."
CHRIS "WOODY" WOODWARD, #20 engine specialist from Franklin, N.H. - "Going back to New Hampshire is definitely a reality check. You're like, 'Wow,' I remember being on that side of the fence looking in on this side. Winston Cup was where I always wanted to be, and now I'm here."
DAVE ROGERS, #20 engineer from Marshfield, Vt. - "New Hampshire International was the first place that I saw a Winston Cup race live. It was their inaugural year. Up until I got my job at Joe Gibbs Racing, I went to every Winston Cup race at New Hampshire. My entire family still goes, so winning there back in July of 2000 was very special."
JAY BARRY, #20 rear tire carrier from Hebron, Conn. - "For the last three years after the fall race, I've taken a week's vacation and gone up to North Conway (N.H.) to drive up Mount Washington. It's just so beautiful up there that it's a great place to be. I finish off my vacation by seeing the old homestead for a day or two."