Richmond: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Plenty of Riches from Richmond ATLANTA (May 2, 2006) - Of the many trophies stacked upon one another in the home of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart, five have come from Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. Stewart...

TONY STEWART
Plenty of Riches from Richmond

ATLANTA (May 2, 2006) - Of the many trophies stacked upon one another in the home of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart, five have come from Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. Stewart has scored three Cup wins and two NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series victories at the three-quarter-mile oval, pocketing over $2 million in Richmond prize money since becoming a full-time NASCAR driver.

The pilot of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet put his stamp on Richmond back in September of 1999 when he led a dominating 333 of 400 laps for his first Cup win. Since that inaugural win in the latter part of his rookie season, Stewart has secured 24 more victories in Cup competition.

Now in his eighth year as a Cup Series driver, Richmond has arguably become Stewart's best venue. Hard numbers back that claim, because in 14 career Nextel Cup starts at Richmond he has scored five top-fives and nine top-10s while leading a total of 764 laps - 13.7 percent of the 5,593 laps available. And in Stewart's three Truck Series races at Richmond, he led 66 of a possible 609 laps en route to back-to-back wins in 2002 and 2003 and a third-place finish in 2004.

Stewart returns to Richmond for this Saturday night's Crown Royal 400 Nextel Cup race wearing the crown of reigning Nextel Cup champion. The strength he and his #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Team displayed last year when they led the points for 15 of the last 16 weeks - culminating with their championship celebration at the season finale in Homestead (Fla.) - did not ebb during the off-season.

Stewart already has one victory this season - Martinsville (Va.) four weeks ago - and the most top-fives of any Nextel Cup driver with six. He has also led a lap in every race this season, something no other driver has done. In fact, Stewart's 801 laps led is the most of any driver, with his nearest pursuer in this category - Greg Biffle - a distant 246 laps off Stewart's pace.

As the season wears on, early indications are that Stewart is wearing out his opponents. In the last four races Stewart has finished first, third, second and second to climb from ninth to third in points. And there's no reason to think Stewart's upward trend will end at Richmond, for in last year's spring race at Richmond, Stewart finished second to first-time winner Kasey Kahne.

Already rich entering Richmond, Stewart seeks further enrichment in the Crown Royal 400.

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. It's nice to be here on the night when you find out who the 10 guys are going to be in 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."

Richmond is one 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 reminded me of some of the shorter tracks that I've run. It had kind of the same feel that three-quarter-mile tracks did with some of the other cars that I've run with. It wasn't a big drastic change. 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 good 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."

-jgr-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Greg Biffle , Kasey Kahne
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing