Texas II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear ATLANTA (Oct. 31, 2006) - For the top-10 drivers competing in this year's Chase for the Championship, the small circular mirror in the lower front corner of their driver's side window...

TONY STEWART
Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear

ATLANTA (Oct. 31, 2006) - For the top-10 drivers competing in this year's Chase for the Championship, the small circular mirror in the lower front corner of their driver's side window used to see traffic coming up behind them may very well be inscribed with the same message found on any passenger car's side mirror - "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear."

That's because while Tony Stewart is out of the Chase, and subsequently out of championship contention, the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing has proven that he is still a championship-caliber driver with a championship-caliber team.

In the seven Chase races held thus far, Stewart has scored the most points of any Chase driver (995 points) and the most wins of any Chase driver (two). If he were in the Chase as the 11th driver via a wild card with 5,000 points heading into the first Chase race Sept. 17 at New Hampshire - just five fewer points than 10th-place Kasey Kahne had at the time - Stewart would be second in points, 13 markers behind current point leader Matt Kenseth, heading into Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

And even though none of Stewart's 28 career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series wins have come at Texas, don't expect a letup from the two-time and reigning series champion.

In his nine career Nextel Cup starts at Texas, Stewart has finished in the top-10 six times. And in his most recent trip to the 1.5-mile oval, Stewart led 99 laps en route to a third-place finish, his best Nextel Cup result at Texas.

But just because there hasn't been a NASCAR win at Texas doesn't mean that Stewart hasn't enjoyed success in the Lone Star State.

Prior to coming to NASCAR, Stewart was the star of the IRL IndyCar Series. In his three trips to Texas as an IRL driver, Stewart started on the pole twice (June 1997 and June 1998) and second once (Sept. 1998). While mechanical troubles beset Stewart's Indy car each time he came to Texas, he ran up front when his car was running, leading 208 of a possible 624 laps (33.4 percent).

Stewart finally broke into Texas' victory lane when he won round two of this year's IROC Series race at the track in April. Stewart followed that win with another victory in round three on the road course at Daytona (Fla.). And with a third-place finish in the IROC season finale last Saturday at Atlanta, Stewart won his first IROC championship.

Apparently, Stewart liked the confines of Atlanta's victory lane, because he showed up there again on Sunday night when he won the Bass Pro Shops 500. It was his second win at Atlanta and his fourth win in a 500-mile Nextel Cup race.

The car that carried Stewart to that win was quickly turned around and prepped for Texas. Chassis No. 120 will make its fifth career start in the Dickies 500, with its past four starts being a ninth-place finish at California in September, a win at Kansas in October, a 13th-place finish at Charlotte (N.C.) three weeks ago and the aforementioned win at Atlanta.

Stewart brings his pedigree, his history, his team and his car to Texas for the third to last race of the 2006 season. And while a championship is out of reach, Stewart is a lot closer than he appears.

If you were in the Chase, you'd be second in points. Does that matter to you?

"But we aren't in the Chase, so it doesn't matter. It isn't any more frustrating, because after Richmond was over, we just weren't in the Chase. The focus changed at that point. It is what it is. If we were in the Chase, we would not have been able to do what we did at Kansas (gamble on fuel mileage to win). We probably wouldn't have gotten as many points. Once we missed the Chase in Richmond (Va.), that was it.

"The guys that are racing for the championship are racing for the championship. There is a lot of pressure on those guys. Sometimes it gets you off your game a little bit, sometimes it forces you to be a little more conservative and sometimes because of the pressure, you make mistakes. Those guys are in a totally different situation than we are. It is easier for us to just go out and try and win races. It is not frustrating at all to me that we have gotten more points than these guys. We are out there to win each race. Those guys are in a totally different situation. It is just two totally different scenarios right now."

Along with just trying to win races, are you trying anything new in preparation for next season?

"We're strictly just trying to win races. We're coming out with a new car next year with the Impala SS when we have the Car of Tomorrow, and of course, we have our regular Home Depot Chevrolet whenever we don't have the Car of Tomorrow. So we've got two totally new cars to run next year. It would be great to say that what we're learning right now is stuff we'll be able to use right away next year, but with the way technology changes, I don't know how useful today's information will be next year. Technology in this sport is in a constant state of change. What's good right now might not be good in February. You have to fight really hard to stay up on what is going on. So for us, it's just a matter of going out and winning races."

When you rolled into New Hampshire and it had set in that you weren't in the Chase, did things become easier because the pressure was off?

"As a team we knew it wasn't the end of the world. When it happened, we were obviously devastated. But when you look at the season we had and the adversity that we overcame, to just be in a position to where we could race to get in the Chase and stay in the Chase, that was a pretty big accomplishment for us. It didn't work out our way. It didn't work out for two of the biggest names in NASCAR last year (Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.). It's just part of the sport. It shows how competitive the series is.

"When we didn't get in, it wasn't the end of the world. We just switched our focus. We didn't have the goal of trying to win a championship anymore, so it was all about going out and trying to win races. It hasn't changed the focus or the attitude of our team. We're happy because the plan we set out for the remaining 10 races, we're on schedule with. We won two races. Last year we didn't win any races when we were in the Chase. I think that is a good accomplishment for our team. We've won four races this year. I think we have a lot to be proud of."

Of the three races left, which ones are your best tracks and which ones are you not looking forward to?

"I'm pretty excited about all of them. This is the part of the season with tracks coming up that are really good to us. Phoenix is one where I think we'll be just as good we were there in the spring (finished second). We've had some good runs at Homestead (Fla.). And at Texas we ran decent in the spring and we've really come on with our 1.5-mile program, so I think we're going to be a lot better. I'm not really concerned about any of them. I'm just excited about all three of them."

You've seemed to have hit your stride in recent races at Texas. You've been able to makes passes and run up front. How have you been able to adapt to Texas' layout?

"I think you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy that misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn't make a mistake and you've got a little better car than they do, the groove has moved up enough over the years to where the track's a little wider, so you have more room to get a run on a guy. But as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car's handling will become more important. And when a guy makes a mistake, you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up."

Despite the relative youth of Texas Motor Speedway, it's had a history of being a treacherous race track. Why is that?

"I've run there in a Busch car, an IRL car and in a Cup car with this Home Depot team. I never looked at it as a treacherous race track. For some reason, it seemed that the track's transitions were very line-sensitive. The entries and exits to the corners are very tricky, and that's what makes Texas difficult. I don't think it's treacherous. You just have to hit your marks every lap. Texas doesn't leave a whole lot of room for error."

Before you raced at Texas in a stock car, you raced there in an Indy car. What was the difference?

"The IRL car was nothing like driving a stock car. You could go anywhere on the track with the IRL car that you wanted to, and you could run wide-open while doing it. It was as easy as riding down the interstate, whereas with a stock car, you're not off the gas very long, but you do have to lift. With the track being so line-sensitive, it's really important that you're doing the same thing every lap, and making sure you're very consistent in how you're driving the car."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Kasey Kahne
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing