ATLANTA (June 13, 2005) - "I'll take 'Potpourri' for $1,000, Alex."
Taking a page from Alex Trebek's Jeopardy! playbook, the category heading into this weekend's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series event at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn is "Potpourri." And while there will be 43 contestants come Sunday's Batman Begins 400 at the 2-mile oval, the Ken Jennings of The Home Depot Racing Team's version of Jeopardy! is Tony Stewart, who ironically, drives the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Stewart, a winner at Michigan in both Cup and IROC competition, heads into round number 15 of the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule a respectable 10th in points. Yet the 2002 series champion is still winless this year, stuck at 19 career victories since winning at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) road course 29 races ago.
"When will you win?", "What do you think of Danica Patrick?", and "How about that KaBOOM! playground build you're participating in on June 6?", as well as other pressing questions, are addressed by Stewart in "Potpourri" fashion.
You're still looking for your first win this season. Do you feel like it can come at Michigan?
"We felt like we let Martinsville (Va.) go with the tire coming off and we had a good run at Richmond (Va.) - where we wanted to win obviously, but since we couldn't win it was good to see my buddy Kasey Kahne get his first win. We've been close a couple times this year, but we just haven't been able to capitalize. We've just had a lot of bad luck this year and we're missing something. There's something that Hendrick and Roush have figured out that we haven't quite figured out yet. But we do feel like we're gaining on it. It's a process, and we're working to run a bit better than what we're running now."
With 12 wins amongst them so far this season, the Hendrick and Roush teams seem to have an upper hand. Where do you rank your season in comparison to theirs, and what do you need to beat them?
"I'm okay with where we're at in the points, but I'm disappointed in the way we're running. Our season has been pretty marginal to this point. We have a lot to gain, obviously. Hendrick and Roush have figured out something, and it really shows how technical this sport is nowadays. It's getting to where Formula 1 is. Ferrari was dominant for so many years because they found something in the equation that worked for them. That's the way Hendrick and Roush are now. And it's our job to find something to make ourselves - not just as good as Hendrick and Roush - but better. Everybody is chasing those two teams right now. But we're not totally off, because we've had good runs at places like Richmond and Martinsville. We know we've got some work to do. When people ask us what area we need to figure out, my direct response isn't to be a smart aleck about it, but if we knew what we needed to figure out we would've found it by now. We're all scrambling. We don't think it's in the horsepower area, but we don't know if its chassis, aero or what. But we do know that there's something in that package we've got to find if we're going to make ourselves better."
You are just past the halfway mark for the Chase for the Championship cutoff Sept. 10 at Richmond. With roughly a year-and-a-half of the revised points system under your belt, what's your impression?
"I think it turned out fine. I liked it the way it was, but with the old system I would've been worried every week about where we stood. But now? I can't even tell how many points out of the lead we are because I don't even know. The good thing about the new points system is that it gives the good teams that have historically been in the top-10 the flexibility to try things, knowing that if you have a bad week it's not going to be that dramatic. But the guys who are 15th to 20th in points are trying to figure out what they've got to do to get into the top-10. Their mindset is that instead of having 36 weeks to get it done, they've got to get it done in 26 weeks. But the moral of the story is still the same - if you get into that top-10 you better have your stuff ready to go for that last 10-week stretch and not have any mistakes, because mistakes in that final, 10-race sprint will cost you big."
Much has been made about your calm demeanor this year. Have you changed how you handle certain situations?
"I got to the point where I got tired of fighting the fight. There were a lot of things that I would get vocal about and fight for, but after a while I discovered that no matter how many times you're right, you can't convince everybody. So why even fight that fight? It just wasn't worth it. It's easier to sit in the race car, do what I need to do, get out, go home and not worry about it. No matter how mad you are when you get out of the car, you just go into the hauler, change, hide from everybody for five minutes, put on your vanilla face, tell everybody want they want to hear and then go home. After you do it the first couple of times, it's easy to do, and it makes your life easy. I learned that it's not my job to change the world. It's my job to exist in it. Simplifying life like that has made life more fun."
With all of the attention Danica Patrick has been getting, would NASCAR be wise to speed up an element of its diversity program to get a female into the seat of a Nextel Cup car? And do you see a female NASCAR star coming to NASCAR in the near future?
"The first woman who comes along who has earned her way to Nextel Cup just like Danica has earned her way to the Indy Racing League - I'd welcome her with open arms. But I don't think we need to rush that. We don't need to find a woman and put her in a race car and say, 'Here, we need you to go out and be our Danica Patrick.' That's the wrong reason to do it. Danica is where she is for the right reasons. She has earned her way to the seat she's in, she's got the talent to do the job and do it right and she's serious about it. I'm waiting on that situation to happen in NASCAR, but I don't think we should set some sort of timetable for that to happen. It'll happen when it happens. I'm a driver, not a scout, so I don't know when that time will be. I've got one World of Outlaws team, two USAC Silver Crown teams, two USAC Sprint Car teams, a USAC Midget team and a race track (Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio). I don't have time to focus on anything else. My plate is already pretty full."
On June 6 you'll be participating in a KaBOOM! playground build in Jackson, Mich., located just a few miles from the track.
"It's a pretty cool deal. It's a partnership between The Home Depot, Joe Gibbs Racing and KaBOOM!. We've done some KaBOOM! builds in the past, and they're great because unlike an autograph session or other kinds of appearances, you know you're actually doing something. The Jackson build will be the first of 10 playground builds that we'll be doing this year, and all of them will be done in a single day. All of the playgrounds are NASCAR-themed and they're all taking place in race markets. But I know that Joe (Gibbs, team owner) won't let me touch any power tools or anything with a sharp edge. So I might just be stuck shoveling gravel or something. But if my tools don't make some kind of noise or aren't capable of making mass destruction of something, I'll be a little disappointed."
With all the rules changes that have occurred during your seven years in Nextel Cup - especially this year, with NASCAR cutting the rear spoiler to 4 ½ inches and implementing a rear-end gear rule that limits the amount of gears a team can use during a Nextel Cup weekend - do you feel that your USAC background better prepared you to adapt to whatever rules changes NASCAR adopts?
"I don't think it hurt, by any means. In USAC you might run a Midget on a quarter-mile dirt track one night, and then the next night you'd be on a half-mile pavement track with a Sprint car before running a mile dirt track the next day with a Silver Crown car. Bouncing around like that between two different surfaces and three types of cars probably does help when they make big changes that affect the way these cars drive. You don't get stuck on a certain feel of a race car, so when changes come around it's just a matter of getting the balance back again. But I think all the drivers at this level, not just the guys who came from an open-wheel background, but the guys who have made it from Late Models at local short tracks and on up the ladder, they've all learned to adapt, and that's why they've made it as far as they have."
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."
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."