INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2000 -- Tony Stewart has won three races on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit this season. That equals the combined total of Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt, the top three in the series point ...
INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2000 -- Tony Stewart has won three races on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit this season. That equals the combined total of Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt, the top three in the series point standings heading into the Brickyard 400 on Aug. 5 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's also more than any other driver in the series. That says a lot for Stewart, a native Hoosier who left full-time open-wheel racing last year at age 27 to join the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and then easily became its rookie of the year. He won three races in 1999, finished in the top five 12 times and placed fourth in the final standings. So far, there hasn't been a sophomore jinx. He's sixth in the standings and has 13 top-10 finishes. In 53 career starts, he has earned $4,113,529 in prize money. Now Stewart returns to the Brickyard in his The Home Depot Pontiac. He believes that he is a better driver than last year and has an improved chance of winning at Indy - a goal he's had in mind since he started driving quarter-midgets in his nearby birth place of Columbus, Ind. He qualified 11th and finished seventh in his first Winston Cup start at Indianapolis. "Anytime you only go to a racetrack once a year, your first year is kind of a throw-away year," Stewart said. "You don't know what to expect. I didn't know how the track was going to change. "With how the race went last year, now I know more on the preparation and just the race setup more than anything, knowing how to get the car where we need to get it. That's what I'm going to concentrate on this year. So that gives me more of a direction of where to focus on this race." Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli are in the midst of their second full season together. Stewart thinks that the crew did a better job than he did early last season as he made the switch from Indy-style cars. He came on strong starting with the spring race at Talladega and had only six finishes outside the top 10 thereafter. This year he's had some finishes - 42nd at Bristol, Tenn., and 34ths at Atlanta and Talladega, Ala. - that weren't productive. And he also failed to collect any bonus points in the first 10 races. He then picked up 50 bonus points in the next eight races before being shut out in the most recent Pennsylvania 500 July 23 at Pocono International Raceway as he finished a lap down in 26th. "I've learned a lot," he said of his time in a stock car. "Going back to the beginning of last year, we had a better team than a race car driver for the first half of the year. I started catching up as the year went on. This year I'm gaining more knowledge. "I'm working with the same guys. We haven't switched anybody, so the guys I 'm working with I'm more familiar. They're more familiar with me. "I'm just starting to get smarter. Every time we make a change, they let me know why we're making it and what it's supposed to do. And I'm starting to get more involved in that. I'm a little more confident as a driver knowing what the changes are, knowing how the car will react every time. "It just makes me a more confident race driver." Stewart cut his racing teeth in the USAC midgets, sprints and Silver Crown cars - he won an unprecedented sweep of the three series titles in 1995 - and then stepped up to Indy-style cars with the advent of the Indy Racing League. He qualified for the front row in his first Indianapolis 500 in 1996 driving for John Menard and started on the pole due to the death of pole winner and teammate Scott Brayton in a practice crash. Stewart led 44 laps before engine failure took him out of the race but still earned the Bank One Rookie of the Year Award. He and Donnie Allison are the only drivers to have won both Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR Winston Cup rookie honors. Stewart went on to win the 1996-97 Indy Racing League championship. Winning the Brickyard would be nice, he said, "but it's not going to replace winning the Indy 500, by any means. "You always want to win here growing up this close to the Speedway. I want to win every race I run anyway, but if I had to say I'd trade Loudon (N.H., where he won July 9) for this, I'd do it in a heartbeat. "I definitely want to win this race being a hometown hero." Points leader Labonte and Stewart are teammates. Stewart insists there is no overt competition between them within the garage. In fact, during recent testing at the Speedway, Labonte found something that helped Stewart pick up a half-second per lap, Stewart said. Labonte immediately shouted over to his stablemate and told him to check out the change. "Even with how we ran the last half of last season -- and we were running good -- he was still helping us as much as he could," Stewart said. "I think the relationship between both of us and the way we work together is showing this year. I think it just makes us better race car drivers, and that makes the whole program better."
BRICKYARD 400 NOTEBOOK
Schedule: The Brickyard 400 starts at 12:15 p.m. (EST) Aug. 5. Pole qualifying starts at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 3, with second-round qualifying at noon Aug. 4. Practice sessions will take place at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Aug. 3, and 9 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Aug. 4. *** On the air: ABC will televise the Brickyard 400 live Aug. 5, with the pre-race show starting at 1 p.m. (EDT). ESPN2 will broadcast pole qualifying live from 2:30-5:30 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 3. ESPN2 will televise second-round qualifying live from 1-2 p.m. Aug. 4. The final "Happy Hour" of practice will be televised from 7:30-8:30 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 4 on ESPN. The Indy Racing Radio Network will broadcast the race live Aug. 5, starting with a pre-race show at 12:30 p.m. (EDT). IRRN also will broadcast pole qualifying live from 2-4 p.m. (EDT) Aug. 3.