ATLANTA (Feb. 1, 2005) - One championship. Nineteen wins. Seven poles. Seventy-seven top-five finishes. One hundred and twenty-four top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart and the ...
ATLANTA (Feb. 1, 2005) - One championship. Nineteen wins. Seven poles. Seventy-seven top-five finishes. One hundred and twenty-four top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team have accumulated in their six years together in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.
But despite the impressive figures, the most pressing matter of the moment is readying for the 2005 Nextel Cup season. The wins, the poles and the accolades of year's past don't mean much when another grueling, 36-race schedule looms ahead. For all intents and purposes, it's just another series of never-ending performance reviews.
As such, the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing squad completed two test sessions in January - one at Daytona (Fla.) and another at Texas - with two more being performed at Las Vegas and California prior to the annual February pilgrimage to Daytona for Speedweeks and the ensuing grind that will consume all teams right through the end of November.
Two years removed from their status as reigning series champions, the #20 team enters 2005 with their eyes fixed on earning career win #20 and then some while securing their second series championship and the third for Joe Gibbs Racing.
While plenty of questions surround the upcoming season, there are no questions regarding the on-track success of the #20 team. And thanks to an off-season filled with testing and new car construction, The Home Depot Racing Team aims to keep it that way.
At the core of the #20 team's success is the combination of driver Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli. The 2005 season marks their seventh year together, for what is currently the longest active driver/crew chief relationship in the Nextel Cup Series. Encapsulating their accomplishments together and the accomplishments of the entire #20 team is their string of top-10 point finishes. In six years together the #20 team has never finished lower than seventh in points (fourth in 1999, sixth in 2000, second in 2001, first in 2002, seventh in 2003 and sixth in 2004).
"When we started this team back in late '98, we put a young group of people together and we all made a commitment to work together and take care of each other as best as we could as a company," said Zipadelli, quick to defer credit to those who surround him. "Without them we couldn't have gotten as far as we have in the past six years.
"Everyone takes a lot of pride in what we've been able to accomplish and how we're structured. They ought to. They're the hardest working group of guys in the garage. I'd be willing to put them up against anybody. I've been lucky that they've all hung together and I haven't had any indication that any of them wanted to leave. To me, that's good. They all plan on being here this year and in the years to come."
And with 2005 now upon the #20 team, Stewart and Zipadelli play "20 Questions" before packing their bags for Daytona.
TONY STEWART , driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
Q: How have you and Greg Zipadelli managed to have the longest active driver/crew chief relationship in Nextel Cup?
TS: "He's (Zipadelli) a very tolerant and patient person, I know that. To work with me you have to be. But I think first and foremost we realized from day one that we both had the same passion and desire to win races. When you get two people with the same desire and the same passion, you always find a way of working well together."
Q: What are the key elements to a successful, long-term driver/crew chief relationship?
TS: "I don't know. Greg and I just get along really well. We understand each other. I'm hard to get to understand sometimes, but with Zippy, even though we may not have raced in the same backgrounds, a lot of the things that have happened with us have been very similar. It's kind of like having a big brother that you learn from, whether it's stuff that goes on at the race track or away from the race track. I lean on him quite a bit. We both have the same passion and desire to win and I think that's a pretty strong bond right there."
Q: How much does a long-term driver/crew chief relationship play in the success of a race team?
TS: "You look at a situation like Jason's (Leffler) this year. He's working with a new crew chief. There's going to be a transition period of learning each other and learning what it means when Jason says that his car is a little bit loose. Dave (Rogers, crew chief) has to figure out what a little bit loose means to Jason. When I say the car is a little bit loose, Zippy knows how much a little is. If I say that my car is a lot loose, Zippy knows how much of an adjustment will compensate for a lot. Right away when we go to Daytona we'll have worked together for six years, and he can tell in my tone of voice whether or not I'm comfortable with something. I may not change my words, but just the tone that I deliver them in will give him an indication that it's a little more severe or a little less severe than what he's thinking by watching me out on the race track."
Q: There have been some tough times that this team has had to endure, but it seems as though those times are becoming few and far between. Regardless, you and Zipadelli have stood firmly together. How?
TS: "I know I can be a challenge for him, but that's no secret to anybody. That's just passion and desire. Sometimes the way it comes out is different than the way it should be. But at the end of the day, Zippy cares about me as a person and not as a piece of equipment. First and foremost he cares about me as a person. Having that kind of support from that kind of a person is what gets you through the tough times. And when you do have success, that's what makes it more gratifying."
Q: Has Zipadelli been a key person throughout your NASCAR career, both publicly and privately?
TS: "Absolutely. He's been the one person I talk to the most, and not because somebody has forced me to but because he genuinely cares about me as a person. No matter what aspect of my life it is - we talk about more things in my life that are going on outside the race track than what's going on at the race track - that's the part that makes a driver/crew chief relationship that's in its seventh year so prosperous."
Q: Is your relationship with Zipadelli something that will last throughout your NASCAR career?
TS: "I would have no problem retiring from this sport with him as my crew chief, and I'll say that to the day I die. He knows me better than anybody. He knows me better than some of the girlfriends I've dated. You cherish relationships like that both on and off the race track."
Q: Has Zipadelli helped you develop a comfort level with the way NASCAR works?
TS: "There are always going to be things that rub you raw, but Zippy has a way of turning those kinds of things into positives. You don't focus on it; you just focus on what you have to do to make it work for you. It's easy for people just to throw their hands up and say 'I can't deal with this.' But Zippy is one of those guys that finds a way to deal with things, and he's known me long enough that he knows how to deal with me. Something that might've aggravated me for three or four weeks in the past might only aggravate me for three or four days now because he's able to put it in a way that I understand, and in turn, I can deal with it differently."
Q: Has there ever been a time when your relationship with Zipadelli was strained?
TS: "I think there have been times where he's wanted to knock my head off. But every time that's come around he's had a legitimate reason for that. But I think it shows how strong a person Zippy really is. He's never given up on me. There's been a bunch of times where he's been really frustrated and disappointed with me, but he's never turned his back on me. No matter how good or bad our career goes from here on out, he's the guy I want to do it with."
Q: How did you spend your off-season?
TS: "I had fun. I bought a Midget over the off-season. I bought it at 11:45 one night and by four o'clock the next day I was qualifying it on two-year old tires and at 10 o'clock we were getting our picture taken in victory lane with it. That was fun. I ran the Chili Bowl, but other than that I spent a lot of time at home. Since buying Eldora I've been in a lot of conversations as we get it ready for the 2005 season. That's a huge learning process for me. I didn't go to the Bahamas. I didn't go to any tropical islands. Probably the most exciting thing I did was Zippy's Crusade for Kids charity snowmobile ride up in New York. That's probably the only vacation I took. The rest of the time I was at home enjoying my friends and family and trying to get all my businesses straightened out before the season started and I had to go back to work."
Q: Is there a favorite part of the NASCAR season for you?
TS: "Normally by the end of the season I'm ready for a break. This is probably as fresh as I've been going into a season. I'm ready to go back to work and ready to go down to Daytona. Not going down there for three days of testing has made me more excited to get down there for Speedweeks. Between testing and the Rolex 24 Hour race we're going to be pretty busy leading up to Daytona, but I still feel better than I ever have heading into a season. But the whole season is a fun season. The format is fun with having the Chase for the last 10 races - it splits the season up to where you kind of get a fresh start with 10 to go."
Q: Whenever a new season begins do you set goals?
TS: "When I was racing Midget and Sprint cars and paying my own bills, you learned to try to win each race. If you did that everything else seemed to take care of itself. Your goal is to stay consistent all year, and if we can do that I guess that's our goal."
Q: What does the #20 team have to do better in 2005?
TS: "What do we have to do better? I wish it was that easy to just pinpoint one thing. We just need to be more consistent. When that last 10-week stretch comes around, we need to be able to pump out top-five finishes, and that's something we weren't able to do last year."
Q: You've mentioned that your 2004 title run was thwarted by inconsistency. Where did you feel you were inconsistent?
TS: "All you have to do is look at where we finished. It was like a roller-coaster. We were all over the place. Every place where we were 15th or 25th or somewhere in that range is where we need to work to get back into the top-10. There was no one area. From one weekend to the next we were a little inconsistent. Thankfully, we have the same people we had last year. Obviously, Greg and I have been together for a long time. This is our seventh year together and that's a huge advantage for us. Having the relationship that we have and knowing each other as well as we know each other, that's going to help us a ton."
Q: Last year you were essentially knocked out of the Chase after the first race when you were caught up in an accident not of your making. Is there any way you or NASCAR can prevent such a thing from happening again this year?
TS: "There are 43 guys who start the race and there's 10 of us in the Chase. You can't control the other 33 guys. They've got a right to race just like everyone else. They're still racing for their spot in the point standings and their share of championship prize money too. I'm not sure there's any solution to prevent what happened last year. When you're in the top-10 there at the end you've got to protect yourself. You've got to race hard but you've also got to protect yourself, and that's how you get into the Chase to begin with. It was just an unfortunate deal, but we always knew in the back of our minds that something like that could happen. We just didn't anticipate that it would happen in the first race of the Chase."
Q: When you won the series championship in 2002 you started the season with a 43rd place finish in the Daytona 500. Did that tell you that you didn't have to start the season strong in order to factor into the title chase?
TS: "I think everybody is going to have a 'throw away' race. It's just a matter of when do you have it? You don't want to have it at the first race of the year because you soon realize that you're not going to have too many opportunities to have something like that happen again. After being at Daytona for 10 days it was a huge disappointment to go out and run two laps in the Daytona 500 and then leave early. But I think everyone is realistic about knowing that you have 26 races to get yourself into the Chase. But by the end of that 26th week you'd better be ready for those next 10 races because you've got to be consistently good each week."
Q: What will it take to win another championship?
TS: "If I knew that we'd win the championship every year. There's no blueprint. Every year if you look back in the history of NASCAR there's never been two years that have been identical. Every year is kind of like a snowflake - they're all different. You've just got to take the circumstances you're dealt each week and work to consistently finish in the top-five. If you can do that every week you'll put yourself into a position to win the championship."
Q: You didn't participate in this year's Daytona test, as Mike McLaughlin handled the #20 team's testing duties. Why?
TS: "From a driver's perspective, Daytona testing is kind of like watching paint dry. You go out there and try not to miss one of the three shifts you've got to make once you leave first gear. Testing at Daytona is more for the knowledge that Zippy and the teams learn than anything. It was a privilege and a pleasure to have Mike McLaughlin down there in the car so that I had an extra few days of vacation time to get ready for this season."
Q: You tested at Texas Motor Speedway Jan. 18-19. What did you learn about the new spoiler and tire combination?
TS: "Until we get around other cars in race conditions, we're really not going to know how much of an affect the reduced spoiler height and the new tire compound will have. It didn't seem like it was a huge change for us. The test at Texas was a tire test for Goodyear, so you don't really get to work on your car a whole lot. You're there to test tires more than you are your race car. But I did feel comfortable in the car."
Q: Do you have any concerns with the smaller rear spoiler and the new tire compound being introduced this year?
TS: "No, it is what it is. Things are going to change constantly, and no matter what changes you've got to learn to deal with it and learn to make the best of it. We ran at Texas for two days doing a Goodyear tire test and we didn't have any dramas. We'll see what happens when we get around other cars, but The Home Depot Chevrolet wasn't uncomfortable by itself."
Q: Will having less downforce and softer tires better suit your driving style?
TS: "I've lain in bed at night wondering if it will. We really won't know until we get into the season. I'm hoping so. Two years ago we were in situations where track position was everything and you could run 150 laps on a set of tires and be just as fast as a guy with 30 laps on his tires. Last year we got away from that a little bit and hopefully this year we'll get away from it even more and get it back to where it was when I started in this series. Back then you had to really pay attention to your tire wear and not overdrive the car too early. Hopefully, we'll get into that kind of situation again.
"You're still going to find a balance in your race car. Everybody's cars aren't going to suddenly be loose. We'll be able to balance them out just like we always do no matter what the package is. We'll see how it affects all of us when we're in a crowd and there's less air on top of our cars."
Continued in part 2