Michigan II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART It All Began in Batman Begins 400 ATLANTA (Aug. 15, 2005) - Eight NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races ago, Tony Stewart was frustrated. The driver of the ...

TONY STEWART
It All Began in Batman Begins 400

ATLANTA (Aug. 15, 2005) - Eight NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races ago, Tony Stewart was frustrated.

The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet had just finished second in the Batman Begins 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Stewart led four times for a race-high 97 laps, but the race victor was Roush Racing's Greg Biffle, whose win was his fifth of the season and the eighth scored by Roush Racing, both of which were series' bests.

Hendrick Motorsports, the other dominant team of the season's first half, laid claim to five other victories. Only two non-Roush/Hendrick drivers had taken a checkered flag - Kevin Harvick of Richard Childress Racing at Bristol (Tenn.) and Evernham Motorsports' Kasey Kahne at Richmond (Va.). In 15 races Roush and Hendrick drivers had combined to win 13 of them.

As Stewart walked from pit road to Michigan's garage area, he wondered aloud, "What do we have to do to win a race?" Anyone else not in a Roush Ford or a Hendrick Chevrolet wondered the same thing.

The race following Michigan offered a reprieve to the Nextel Cuppers. It was the road course in Sonoma (Calif.). The anti-oval allowed drivers to drive their cars by turning left and right, downshifting and upshifting. The aerodynamic traits that so profoundly affected handling on the ovals were nowhere to be found on the 2-mile road course.

Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli welcomed the change of pace, and after taking the checkered flag for their first win of the season, set the pace for a torrid summer streak.

The very next race was the 400-miler under the lights at Daytona (Fla.). Stewart dominated, leading all but nine laps of the 160-lap contest. It was his first point-paying restrictor plate win and the fourth time in his Nextel Cup career that he had scored back-to-back victories.

But even with two straight wins under his belt, Stewart felt that his newfound strength had more to do with the schedule rather than where the #20 Home Depot Racing Team stood amidst the Roush/Hendrick juggernaut.

A road course race and a restrictor plate race are anomalies on the Nextel Cup schedule. The bread and butter of the 36-race marathon that lasts from February through November are intermediate ovals, and that's where Roush and Hendrick had excelled.

The 1.5-mile D-shaped oval at Chicagoland was next up on the schedule, and it was there where a strong fifth-place finish was earned. "This was a very key weekend for us to back up our performance in Michigan," said Stewart after the race. "I think we showed that we've caught up with the Roush and Hendrick teams a little bit. We didn't win the race today. We never led a lap, but we were a contender all day and we were right in that mix with the Hendrick and Roush cars. Hopefully that will solidify Joe Gibbs Racing in that list of two or three teams that have a shot at winning this thing at the end of the year."

Stewart's words rung prophetic. He followed Chicagoland with a dominating win at New Hampshire, where he led six times for 232 of the race's 300 laps. The next race at Pocono (Pa.) yielded a respectable seventh-place effort, and in retrospect, appeared to be a slight dip in the #20 team's performance.

Indianapolis - Stewart's Holy Grail - opened the month of August after a rare weekend off. Despite the layoff, the #20 team never missed a beat, as Stewart led a race-high 44 laps to capture a win at a race track he said he would've traded his 2002 series championship for. But not only did Stewart not have to trade his championship for the win, he positioned himself for another title when he took over the point lead.

Watkins Glen, the second and final road course race on this year's calendar, followed Indy, and so too did Stewart's breakneck pace. He led 83 of the 92 laps and drove to a seemingly effortless victory. It was his fifth career road course win, his third road course win in a row, and it marked the fifth time in his Nextel Cup career where he's scored back-to-back victories.

Now a return trip to Michigan looms with Sunday's GFS Marketplace 400. But this time the question isn't who can stop the Roush and Hendrick teams, it's who can stop Stewart?

Five wins in seven races. Seven top-five finishes in eight races, with the seventh-place Pocono result being the team's worst. And perhaps the most telling statistic is that during this eight-race span, Stewart has scored all but 89 of the 1,520 points available. Now leading the championship standings by a healthy 105-point margin over second-place Jimmie Johnson, Stewart is assured of being no worse than third when NASCAR resets the standings at five-point increments for the top-10 drivers when the 10-race Chase for the Championship begins Sept. 18 at New Hampshire.

Stewart's championship run began in the Batman Begins 400, and with wins at 10 of the remaining 14 venues on the Nextel Cup schedule, his spectacular run doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon.

Five wins in seven races - you're in a zone. Have you experienced anything like this at any other point in your racing career?

"I'll be honest. I've had zones where I've finished in the top-three when I was in Midgets and Sprint Cars where I could go week-in and week-out and not fall out of the top-three. But to win five out of the last seven and be in the top-five for the last eight weeks is a pretty good record. I know Zippy (Greg Zipadelli, crew chief) is proud of it. I'm extremely proud of it. For us to win at Daytona, Indy, Sonoma, Watkins Glen, and Loudon - to win on all those different disciplines really shows how diverse our program is. It's a tribute to Zippy and the guys and the good job they're doing. From a driver's standpoint, you pray that you get good race cars like this to drive every week. But it's not me making the difference. The team found the right package to make us go fast."

How optimistic do you feel about going back to Michigan where your hot streak began?

"I'm really excited. That's where this run really started. It's just one of those tracks in a string of tracks where we started running well. I can't think of a better place to go back to a second time after the run we had there in the spring."

Where does Michigan rank in terms of all the 1.5- to 2-mile D-shaped ovals that are on the Nextel Cup circuit?

"It's so wide and there are so many lines that you can run - that's what makes Michigan fun for drivers. You have to figure out how to gauge your momentum and know where you want to be on that race track when you enter those corners. Michigan's layout gives the drivers the flexibility to really make a difference in their car's handling."

What was your best memory from winning the June Michigan race in 2000?

"It was raining, and we'd already had one rain delay and then we got the lead and Dale Earnhardt was right behind us, and I know that for six straight laps I overdrove the entry to every corner because I knew he was going to overdrive it trying to get me loose. I think our lap times probably slowed down about three-tenths a lap for those six laps. But everybody was overdriving the corners trying to make up time. I remember when I got out of the car - I was pretty stoked to beat Earnhardt - but I remember he walked up, put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Have fun doing all those interviews on Monday and Tuesday.' He just grinned and walked off."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:

Can you describe the run your team has been on since finishing second at Michigan back in June?

"It's pretty awesome to be going through what we're going through. As good as we've been in the past, we've never been anywhere near this. It's exciting. Obviously, anybody who has the opportunity to win five races in a Nextel Cup season is blessed. For us to do it in the last eight or 10 weeks is really awesome.

"We've got another long stretch, so we need to be able to maintain it and keep our chins up and not get complacent because things are going so well. We need to work even harder right now so we don't fall behind. I know everybody else is."

The June race at Michigan is where it appeared the #20 team turned a corner in terms of on-track performance. Is that accurate?

"We had a really good test at Michigan (June 6-7). We learned some stuff. We built a new car that we took to the All-Star race (at Charlotte, N.C.). We wrecked it, but it was really good. We took it to the Michigan test. We learned a lot with it. We've learned from the bigger tracks. It's neat that we've been able to do it on the superspeedways, short tracks, intermediate tracks and road courses. That's what's really cool about this."

Is there a sense that if the car stays on the race track and the driver runs a clean race that the #20 team is going to win?

"From the outside right now, it looks like that. But it's not really that way. Our stuff has been good. Our driver has been focused. Our pit stops have been great. Every aspect of our race team has been strong. And that's what it takes. There were a lot of other teams that were that way at the beginning of the year. Now we're going back to Michigan and Bristol (Tenn.) with a little different tire. There are a lot of things coming up that could change things very easily."

Are you finding that rival teams are scrutinizing your cars more and more because of the success you've had?

"I've heard a lot of that and seen a lot of that in the past couple of weeks. We're going to have to start carving some eyes out. In all honesty, we didn't look around at what other people were doing. We went home and went to work. We relied on my guys back at the shop. We tested. We built a lot of race cars this year to get aero balance and some things we wanted at the bigger race tracks. As long as they're looking at our stuff, they're not working on their own stuff."

-jgr-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne
Teams Richard Childress Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing