TONY STEWART Man on Fire ATLANTA (Nov. 8, 2006) - Tony Stewart is the hottest driver in NASCAR. The pilot of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing has set fire to the Chase for the Championship, winning three of the past six races...
Man on Fire
ATLANTA (Nov. 8, 2006) - Tony Stewart is the hottest driver in NASCAR. The pilot of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing has set fire to the Chase for the Championship, winning three of the past six races and scoring more points than any other Chase driver. But as "Smoke" smokes the competition, the one win he won't be able to get is a third NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship.
Stewart missed the cut for this year's Chase by a scant 16 points. That meant the two-time and reigning series champion could not defend the title he secured last year in the season finale at Homestead (Fla.).
All that was left for Stewart to Chase were race trophies, as the sculpted Nextel Cup championship trophy from Tiffany's was destined to go to someone else.
But Stewart's whole racing career began in search of trophies. From the time he first wheeled a go-kart at a track in Westport, Ind., Stewart has coveted the trophy first and everything else a distant second. It's appropriate that Stewart's sponsor - The Home Depot - sells hardware, because Stewart loves collecting it.
His back-to-back wins in the series' past two races bumped his career win total to 29, and it marked the sixth time in his eight-year Nextel Cup career that he's scored victories in consecutive races.
The second of those 29 wins came at Phoenix International Raceway, site of this Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500k. It's a race Stewart won in November 1999 during his first season in Nextel Cup where he was crowned Rookie of the Year.
That win was a special one for Stewart because Phoenix is the Indiana native's West Coast home away from home.
Stewart has raced at the 1-mile oval in six different types of race cars - USAC Midgets, USAC Silver Crown cars, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, a NASCAR Busch Series car and a Nextel Cup car. And it was his performance in a USAC Silver Crown car in February 1993 at Phoenix - his first race ever at the desert mile - that turned heads and had team owners in the IRL IndyCar Series and in NASCAR asking, "Who is this kid?"
It was the famed Copper World Classic and the season-opener for USAC's Silver Crown division. Stewart qualified second to Davey Hamilton - a former IRL veteran - and led 31 of the 50 laps before finishing second to Mike Bliss - the 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion. The $3,500 payday for Stewart's second-place effort made eight-hour days at $5 an hour at the Columbus, Ind., machine shop where he worked seem unnecessary. Packing the rest of the 1993 season with Silver Crown, Sprint and Midget races across the nation, Stewart's quick ascent up the racing ladder began.
And while Stewart found that his ladder for this season was about 10 rungs shorter than those who qualified for the Chase, he has shown that he is still a championship-caliber driver.
Even though the championship is out of reach, another race trophy isn't. And as Stewart goes for the checkered flag in the Checker Auto Parts 500k, he'll go for something he hasn't done before - three straight wins.
You've won three of the past six races, including back-to-back races at Atlanta and Texas. How does this streak compare to the one you had last year, when you won five races in seven weeks?
"It's very similar. We finally hit our stride. We just hit it three months too late. It's just one of those situations where we all wish we could turn back the hands of time and get on this string three months earlier to get ourselves in the Chase. But for us right now, the stress level is a tenth of what those guys in the Chase have, and it lets us have the ability to take chances and try things. We can take the first half of practice and try something that we've been wanting to try, but just haven't had the luxury to try. If we were in the Chase, we wouldn't have that ability. It gives us the flexibility to really go all out and try to win races without the fear of losing a bunch of points."
Has not being in the Chase allowed you to try different setups in preparation for next year? Is what you've hit on something that's made this hot streak possible?
"The stuff that we're doing right now, by the time March gets here and we get through with Daytona, technology may have already passed this stage up and we may be on to something else. It's not that we're trying anything for next year, it's just that we're trying to accomplish our goal, and since we're out of the Chase, our goal is to go out and do whatever we can to win the race. It's not that that wasn't the goal before, we just finally have hit our stride and things are clicking and now we're winning races. It's not that we just decided all of a sudden to win races. It's a coincidence that the goal we've put in front of us is a reality now."
You've won more races and scored more points than any driver in the Chase. Do you consider yourself a party-crasher?
"I don't think I'm crashing anybody's party. I'm still not going to be in the top-10 and I'm still not going to be able to go for the trophy at the end of the year. So I don't think we're crashing anybody's party. Our objective each week is different than those guys in the top-10. At this point, all 10 of those guys are worried about themselves and who they are racing for position in the standings right now. They're not worried about us. We're in a totally different position."
Because of all the racing you did at Phoenix before you became a Nextel Cup driver, do you consider Phoenix your West Coast home away from home?
"When Buddy Jobe (former owner and president of Phoenix International Raceway) had this facility he was the one who told me that Phoenix was my West Coast home away from home. And I didn't realize it until I came to Phoenix when I was with the IRL and saw how many test sessions we had at Phoenix and how many laps I had put in there before a race even started. Whether it was tire testing or chassis testing the IRL car or a USAC Midget or a Sprint car, I spent a lot of time at Phoenix International Raceway. I really do feel like it's my West Coast home away from home.
"When we come out to Phoenix two times a year, it's like a homecoming each time. It's a place where I feel comfortable. I know every inch of that race track. I've driven six different types of cars there, and between all those cars I've run at least five different lines. I feel like I know it better than most of the other folks who've just run stock cars there."
How long have you been racing at Phoenix?
"I started racing there in '93 when I ran a Silver Crown car. And since then, I've run USAC Midgets, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, Busch cars, and of course, Nextel Cup in The Home Depot car. So, I've logged a bunch of laps there. I even made my 100th Nextel Cup start there three years ago. To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix, I guess you could say it's the place where my career came full-circle."
Did all those laps you made over the years at Phoenix help prepare you for when you first went there in a Nextel Cup car?
"I think so. With every different division of car that I've run there, I've ended up running a different line. With that, I've learned a lot about that race track and where the sweet spots are on that race track. I was used to the place when it came time to run there in Nextel Cup. I knew a lot about that race track and the different places that can make you go fast or slow. It gave me an opportunity to adapt a lot more to the car than to the race track."
When you talk about "sweet spots," what do you mean?
"You learn about all the bumps and where all the bumps are on the race track. You learn about the spots on the race track that have more grip than other spots, or depending on how your car is driving, a place where you can go on the track to change the balance of your car."
Phoenix is a flat track, but is it like the other flat tracks on the circuit, or is it an entity all its own?
"Everybody calls it a flat track, but to me one end is flat and one end has banking to it. It's a unique place because the radius of the corners are different on each end, the banking of the corners are different on each end, and then you have the dogleg on the backstretch."
Is racing in the Southwest like a family reunion of sorts, because there are so many people in that area who you've met during your racing career?
"With the racing I've done with USAC out West, I've developed a lot of friendships and relationships with people. Running Nextel Cup, we don't have the opportunity to go out to that area but a couple of times a year. The small amount of time that we get to spend out in Phoenix for the Cup race is very valuable to me and all my friends out there. And with all of those friends and fans in that area, there's a fair amount of pride that I take in racing at Phoenix. So for me, it's a place that's very important for The Home Depot Chevrolet to run well."