Half-Full or Half-Empty? ATLANTA (Sept. 6, 2006) - Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Depending on the hour, it's how Tony Stewart is viewing his chances in Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. The...
Half-Full or Half-Empty?
ATLANTA (Sept. 6, 2006) - Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Depending on the hour, it's how Tony Stewart is viewing his chances in Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
The 400-lap contest at the .75-mile oval is the cutoff race to determine what drivers vie for this year's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship. Only the top-10 drivers in points, or anyone within 400 points of the lead, will be eligible to compete for the championship.
Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, enters the last race of the regular season eighth in points, 44 markers outside of the 400-point cutoff and 45 points ahead of 11th place Kasey Kahne.
The "half-full" theory says that Stewart can lock himself into the Chase by making up 44 points on series leader Matt Kenseth and 35 points on second-place Jimmie Johnson. Whether Stewart remains eighth in points or drops to 11th, if he's within 400 points of the leader after Richmond, he's guaranteed a spot in the Chase.
The "half-empty" theory says that Stewart is on defense at Richmond, as a surging Kahne - who scored the maximum amount of points last Sunday at California by winning the race and leading the most laps to lop 52 points off the margin between him and Stewart - is the only driver capable of bouncing a current top-10 driver like Stewart out of Chase contention.
But Stewart isn't the only driver with a half-full, half-empty conundrum. The third- through 10th place drivers are separated by 117 points, with Kahne 147 points behind third-place Kevin Harvick. A bad race by any third- through 10th place driver combined with another outstanding effort by Kahne could tip the balance, as a maximum 156 points can be won or lost in a single Nextel Cup race.
For Stewart, this means a seventh-place finish or better at Richmond ensures a spot in the Chase. As a result, Stewart's glass should be considered half-full.
The two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion has three Nextel Cup wins at Richmond, along with five top-fives and 10 top-10s to give him an average finish of 12th in 15 career starts. And in his last three Richmond races, Stewart has finished second, seventh and sixth for an average finish of fifth. He has also led a total of 764 laps - 12.7 percent of the 5,993 laps available. And outside of Nextel Cup, Stewart has two NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series wins at Richmond.
With a Chase berth on the line and a seven-year string of top-10 point finishes to keep intact, Stewart views Richmond as the foundation for his title defense.
In the past two years of the Chase format, you've been locked into the Chase entering Richmond. Is there pressure this time around since you're not locked in yet?
"To be honest, I've never fallen into pressure. All eight years we've been here in the points, we've just strictly dealt with it one week at a time. That's the easiest way to approach it. What you do this week is this week. Then once this weekend is over and done, you worry about next week. It's literally that simple for us."
Since you're not locked into the Chase, have you thought back to other races where you could've scored more points than you did?
"I just try to keep it real simple. I really don't try to over-think it. I don't try to over-calculate everything. I'm focused on Saturday night, then once Saturday is over with, I'll worry about what we're going to do for New Hampshire next week. I literally take it by a seven-day cycle at a time. California was last week, so it really doesn't matter what we did there. We are at a totally different track race this week. So no matter what happened last week or two weeks ago or two months ago, we can't change any of it. We're better off taking all of our energy and focusing on this coming week instead of focusing on something we can't change."
Since you've been in the Chase the past two years, does that give you an advantage at Richmond other drivers don't have?
"How you get into the Chase is the same way you win the Chase. You've got to go out there and you've got to be good. You've got to be good in 26 races to get in the Chase, and then you've got to be good for 10 races after that to win the Chase."
You've had a lot of success at Richmond. Is it one of your favorite tracks?
"It is my favorite track. It's not one of them, it's the favorite track of mine on the circuit. I've won two Truck races and three Cup races there. It's where I got my first win. A good friend of mine, Kasey Kahne, last year got his first win. Being able to see Kasey win his first race here last year was cool, too. It's definitely a place I enjoy coming to, and considering how it factors into the Chase, it's definitely an important stop for us."
How did you and Kasey Kahne become friends?
"He was a teammate of mine in USAC. That's what struck the friendship. He's a talented kid and he's one of those guys that when you explain something to him, he does a lot more listening than he does talking. That's something that's hard to find with guys that are really competitive. Normally, they think they know most of the answers, but Kasey's one of those guys that when we were teammates, if you had something to tell him, he was very good at listening and very good at applying what was taught. And he's proven that he's learned a lot - this year especially."
Richmond is one of many races that begins in the late afternoon daylight and finishes under the lights. How do you handle those types of conditions, specifically, when the sun disappears and the race track's surface cools?
"I like night racing anyway. I always have. The good thing about night races is that I get to sleep in through the morning. But the challenge is the same for everybody as far as how the surface temperature of the race track will cool off. That's the good thing about it. It gives us a challenge that we don't normally have on a day when the sun is out and the track normally won't change a lot. So it just adds another variable that makes it more exciting for the fans."
How do you deal with the setting sun and its affect on your vision?
"Sometimes it makes it a little difficult visibility-wise. But we've all run enough of these races where we've started in the daytime and ended in the evening. We put extra tape on the top of our windshield that helps shield the sun for us. But that's probably the only downside. For us as competitors, we realize the advantage that night racing gives us to be able to run in prime time like that. So if a little extra tape has to go on the windshield and we've got to deal with the sun for a couple extra laps, so be it."
What's the key to being successful at Richmond?
"You want to make sure that your car is adjustable. We start the race at the end of the day where it's usually pretty hot, but as night comes the track cools down and it changes quite a bit. Old pavement, new pavement, the same theory applies, and that's not something you see at most of the races we go to. It's pretty much isolated to just the night races. When we tested there a couple of years ago, we actually tried to make the car drive badly so that we could figure out ways to make it drive well again. You've got to have adjustability, because you know for a fact that the track isn't going to stay the same all night long."
Is Richmond similar to any other tracks that you've raced on in your career?
"It just reminds me of some of the shorter tracks that I've run. It has kind of the same feel that three-quarter-mile tracks did with some of the other cars that I've run with. It was like Phoenix the first time I went there. I hadn't been to a 1-mile oval but once in my life, but when I got onto Phoenix, I adjusted and adapted to it really quickly. It was a place where I became very comfortable right away. I had that same feeling when I went to Richmond for the first time with The Home Depot car. I think every driver has a track that they go to where they get that same feeling. There are just some places that you go to where you adjust, and it really suits your driving style."
You and your crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, continue to have the longest-tenured driver/crew chief relationship in Nextel Cup. In fact, your first win together came at Richmond during your rookie year in the fall of 1999. What makes your pairing so good?
"The thing that makes him such a great crew chief is that he's so dedicated to the program. He lives, eats, breathes and sleeps this race team. He's a great person. I hit the lottery getting him as a crew chief. He's the reason we've been so successful together as a team. We both have the same passion and desire to win. His work ethic is unbelievable. He cares about people. He learned a lot from Joe Gibbs in that you're only as good as your weakest person. We're always striving to make ourselves better than what we are, but at the same time, he treats everybody as an individual. I could sit here for hours and talk about him. He's just a great person. He's one of those people that when times get tough, he's in the shop 14, 16 hours a day until we get out of the rut that we're in. That's how dedicated he is to our program. And when you put two guys together like Greg and myself that have the same desire to win and the same passion to win, it's hard to beat a combination like that."