Michigan: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Team's Fortune Rises with Fahrenheit ATLANTA (June 12, 2007) -- Of Tony Stewart's 29 career wins in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, only four have come before the month of June. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe ...

TONY STEWART
Team's Fortune Rises with Fahrenheit

ATLANTA (June 12, 2007) -- Of Tony Stewart's 29 career wins in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, only four have come before the month of June. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing heats up when the weather heats ups, with June typically being the month where the two-time Nextel Cup champion kicks into high gear.

Stewart has scored four wins in June, along with three second-place efforts, eight top-threes and 10 top-fives. One of those wins came in June 2003 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, site of this weekend's Citizens Bank 400.

The veteran Joe Gibbs Racing driver will be making his 17th career Nextel Cup start at Michigan. In his 16 previous starts on the 2-mile D-shaped oval, Stewart has six top-threes, seven top-fives and 10 top-10s. In seven of Stewart's last nine outings at Michigan, he's finished in the top-10, with his most recent result being a third-place finish last August.

Needless to say, Stewart is a big fan of Michigan, and its ability to seemingly launch him into championship contention by providing a launchpad for a summer stretch of victories.

With its sweeping corners, banked at 18 degrees and connected by a slightly rounded 3,600-ft. frontstretch and a straight 2,242-ft. backstretch, Michigan allows Stewart to help himself by providing multiple racing grooves to suit the handling characteristics of his Home Depot Chevrolet. From the low side of the track's apron to the high side near the track's outer retaining wall, just about any patch of asphalt is fair game.

And in the brave new world that is NASCAR 2007, where parity reigns and even the slightest edge can make a huge difference, the trump card in the pocket of The Home Depot Racing Team is Stewart. Able to drive anything, anywhere, Stewart can use Michigan's multiple racing grooves to put his race car where it performs best.

And as he prepares to make his 299th career Nextel Cup start on Sunday, Stewart is intent on using Michigan's grooves to set his championship groove.

You are just past the halfway mark for the Chase for the Championship cutoff Sept. 8 at Richmond (Va.). With roughly three-and-a-half years of the revised point 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, and now the top-12, 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-12. 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-12 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."

Casual observers seem to say that the racing on D-shaped ovals is boring. But drivers seem to like it because they're able to move around and use multiple grooves. Is that true at Michigan?

"Yes, you can definitely move around at Michigan. The thing about Michigan is that it's been there for so long now that there's no one, specific groove anymore. You can literally race from the white line on the apron all the way to the wall. That's the groove. Depending on how your car is driving, you can move around on the race track and help yourself. That's what makes Michigan such a fun race track for the drivers. The drivers can really help themselves out if they don't have a car that's working right. You can move around on the race track and find a spot that helps your car do what you need it to do."

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."

At what point do you start to move around on the race track to find a better handle for your race car?

"As soon as you feel like you're not where you need to be. If you feel like you're slower than the pace you need to be running, you're going to move up the race track and find a place that helps balance your race car. Really, from the drop of the green flag, you do it from there on out."

What percentages would you put on a comparison between the importance of horsepower and handling at Michigan?

"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 Michigan and win the race."

How big a role does drafting play at Michigan?

"It's big since Michigan is such a momentum track. You can work the draft pretty well, and if there are some guys racing up in front of you, it'll help you catch up to them. It's a place where you really have to watch and pay attention to the draft."

Why is it that races at D-shaped ovals seem to be won in fairly dominating fashion?

"If a guy gets going and gets his car balanced, then he'll tend to run away. That's just the characteristic of that kind of track. It's fast, it's flat and momentum is so important there, that if a guy is off just a little, he's off a lot. The drivers like it from the standpoint that if you can find a way to get around it a little better, then it'll help them in the long run. You end up racing the race track instead of each other."

Track position and pit strategy seem to be the two biggest variables at Michigan. When and how do you make the decision to sacrifice tires for track position, or depending on the circumstances, track position for tires?

"I think it just depends on how your car is working. If your car is driving well, one that keeps you up toward the front all day because it's fast, then just two tires can keep you pretty quick. In that situation, you could make a big gain at the end by just taking on two tires and maintaining your track position. Even some guys who are behind and don't have their car the way they want, by taking on two tires, the track position they gain helps out more than four tires would. But when you get right down to it, I think Michigan is a track where if your car's good, then it doesn't matter whether you take two tires or four."

The Michigan race will run on Father's Day, which is appropriate considering how many fathers were instrumental in their son's racing careers. How influential was your dad, Nelson, in getting you where you are today? And what were some of the life lessons he taught you as a kid that you've taken with you today?

"He never let me settle for second. He didn't like it when we ran second, and he knew that I didn't like it when we ran second. If he saw that I wasn't giving 100 percent, then he was on me pretty hard about it. He pushed me to be better.

"He never pressured me to be the best race car driver in the world, but he did want me to be the best race car driver that I could be. He never compared me to anybody else. He expected that what I could do was what I could do. He never said that because this guy over here could do something, that I should be able to do it, too. He pushed me hard, but he was fair about it. That's probably why you see so much fire in me today, because he always wanted me to be the best that I could be.

"He's my dad, so obviously he's seen and done a lot of things that I haven't. He's given me some good advice over the years, but probably the best advice he ever gave me was to just remember the people who have helped me, because somewhere along the ladder that you're climbing up, you're eventually going to climb back down, and you're going to meet those people again sometime.

"I've watched the folks that he's dealt with in his career and in mine, and we're still friends with all the people that we've raced with in the past. We never felt like we were better than anybody else. We always kept those relationships, and we always treated those people the way they treated us."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing