Stewart no longer a sophmore

ATLANTA (Jan. 24, 2001) - If the NASCAR Winston Cup Series were like high school, Tony Stewart would be entering his junior year. The driver of the ...

ATLANTA (Jan. 24, 2001) - If the NASCAR Winston Cup Series were like high school, Tony Stewart would be entering his junior year. The driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac has proven to be an apt pupil in his two full years at Bill France High, garnering nine wins, four poles and just under $7 million in career earnings.

But winning races and poles is no longer enough for Stewart. He covets a bigger prize.

After watching his upperclassman teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing - Bobby Labonte - take the 2000 Winston Cup championship, Stewart has intently set his sights on the 2001 title. To do that, Stewart realizes that consistency on the race track, as well as off, are key ingredients to being a Winston Cup champion.

Thanks in large part to the experiences gained in the past two seasons, Stewart is perhaps as ready as he has ever been to make a full throttle challenge for this year's championship.

It's safe to say that your second year in Winston Cup was just as much of a learning experience as your first year in Winston Cup. With that in mind, what kind of advice do you have for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Dave Blaney, who are gearing up for their second year in Winston Cup?

"I'd tell them not to make the same mistakes that I did, obviously. The hardest thing about this sport is that there is no set way of doing things. So, you can sure get yourself in a lot of trouble in a hurry if you're not paying attention. You just need to be on your toes and be careful about what you say, because it can get you in trouble sometimes.

"When it comes to stuff on the race track, I don't think you have to tell those guys anything. The driving part comes naturally now. In your first year, you don't know what to expect. But in your second year, you've been through the series once and you know kind of how things work. I mean, you don't know everything, but you have a much better idea as to what's going on. I think they'll just be a lot more relaxed and accustomed to what they're doing this year. In a way, it's a lot like high school. You go into your freshman year feeling like you don't know what to do or how to act, and when your freshman year is finally over, you're just glad you're not a freshman anymore. You go into your sophomore year with just a better understanding of how everything works."

What were some of the things that made your second year in Winston Cup better than you first year?

"I enjoyed my rookie season because there really wasn't a lot of pressure. But to win six races this year, which doubled what we did last year, we had a lot of fun doing that."

Did your success on the track during your rookie season take some of the weight off your shoulders, because as the season progressed, a lot of people thought you were going to win anyway?

"In a way it kind of worked against us. Running so well as a rookie team put more pressure on us to run even better during our sophomore season. It probably hurt us more than it helped us, to be honest."

What were some of the things that made your second year in Winston Cup harder than your first year?

"There wasn't any one thing in particular, but it was hard to stay focused at times because of all the outside distractions. But as the year progressed, everything just became more natural. The year didn't become easier, but things were easier to deal with."

Entering your third year on the circuit, do you feel as ready and prepared as you ever have been as a Winston Cup driver?

"I've got a better idea of how we have to work to accomplish our goals this year. And if we want to contend for a championship, I have a better idea as to what I have to do as a race car driver to help this Home Depot team put itself into championship contention."

The success of the #20 team has put it into championship contention, but success has also thrust the team into the spotlight of Winston Cup racing. How do you balance what needs to be accomplished on the race track with what needs to be accomplished off the track?

"You learn things on the track as you go on, and you learn how to handle things at the track that don't pertain to the race car, and you learn how to deal with things away from the race track. I think we're learning how to be more efficient with what we do with all of our appearances. When we know we're going somewhere, we can knock out two or three different things at a time. Even though we'll probably have more stuff this year than we've ever had, we're hoping that we've streamlined our program enough to make it to where we have more time off than we've ever had before."

You're making a concerted effort to have fun this year, no matter what. Obviously that's a good idea, but why is it something that you're focusing on?

"I know how big a distraction all the stuff I went through last year was, and I'm not going to let that happen this year - plain and simple. There are a lot of guys here who depend on me to do my job, and having some of the distractions that we had last year wasn't fair to the team. So, I'm just not going to let myself get in that same position this year. I want all of my crew to be successful, because they all work as hard at their jobs as I do at mine. If I'm not holding up my end of the bargain, or if I'm getting distracted, or if the team's getting distracted, our performance will suffer. I'm just going to make sure that I do my part to make sure that we're all at 100 percent, doing all that we can do to win races and win a championship."

After seeing all of the things that Bobby Labonte was able to experience upon winning the championship, has that made you want to win this year's championship all the more?

"I want the trophy. That's all I want out of that. I'm not sure I want to do all of the sideshow stuff, but if winning that trophy means being a part of the sideshow, then so be it."

You've won karting championships, USAC championships, an Indy Racing League championship - is the Winston Cup championship the most coveted of all of those?

"I would say so - for sure. Winston Cup racing is the number one series in the country right now. I don't think you could come close to comparing all of the other championships I've won to a Winston Cup championship. If we can ever accomplish that, it will be really special for all of us."

You have a checklist of types of race cars that you've driven and want to drive. Do you have a checklist of championship trophies that you'd like to get?

"It would obviously look really good on your driver's resume to list a Winston Cup championship. I've had a great career so far, and if I don't ever get it, my career's still been good. But at the same time, it's kind of like the Indianapolis 500. I don't think my resume will be complete until I get a Winston Cup championship and an Indy 500 win knocked out."

<pre> Tony Stewart's Year-by-Year NASCAR Winston Cup Series Statistics:

Year   Races  Won  Top-5  Top-10  DNF  Poles  Laps Led  Money Won
2000      34   6    12     23      5    2     1,212     $3,640,948
1999      34   3    13     21      1    2     1,285     $3,190,149
Totals    68   9    25     44      6    4     2,497     $6,831,097

*Above chart denotes only NASCAR Winston Cup Series point races.

TSR

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing