ATLANTA (Jan. 29, 2004) - One championship. Seventeen wins. Seven poles. Sixty-seven top-five finishes. One hundred and five top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team have accumulated in their...
ATLANTA (Jan. 29, 2004) - One championship. Seventeen wins. Seven poles. Sixty-seven top-five finishes. One hundred and five top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team have accumulated in their five years together in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
But despite the impressive figures, the most pressing matter of the moment is readying for the 2004 season in the newly named NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. 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, Stewart and the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing squad have completed two test sessions this January - one at Daytona (Fla.) and another at Las Vegas - to ready for the season-opening Daytona 500 and the weekly grind that will consume all teams right through the end of November.
A year removed from their status as reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Series champions, Stewart and Co. enter 2004 with their eyes fixed on becoming the first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champions. While plenty of questions surround the altered point system teams will use this 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.
The point system for 2004 has been altered, where after 26 races only the top-10 drivers and any other drivers within 400 points of the leader will be eligible to compete for the championship. With the #20 team's history of always seeming to finish the season strong, could the altered point system work to your benefit?
"Well, last year we wouldn't have made the cut because we weren't in the top-10 and we were more than 400 points behind the leader. But no one knows what's going to happen. It's the same format for everybody. We'll just race hard every week and see what happens."
Can you compete for a championship again in 2004?
"Right now, everyone thinks they have a shot at winning the championship. Our team is doing the same thing everybody else is doing. We're all working hard to try to put ourselves in position to run for a championship title like we did two years ago. It's hard to say what's going to happen because you don't know how everyone else's programs are going to be compared to the way they were last year. We're just going to do the best we can."
Are you at a point in your career where if you don't finish the season with a championship you're disappointed?
"No. If our series wasn't competitive and we had the best team out there but we didn't win the championship every year, then yes, I'd be disappointed. But our series is so competitive that there are 15 teams that have the possibility of running in the top-three everywhere we go now. It's that competitiveness that makes you have to be that much better than everybody else and that much more consistent. Looking back, we can smile knowing that last year's seventh-place point finish was bad for us. That's how competitive this team is. It makes us feel good that we push that hard to be that successful."
When you have a moderately successful season like you did last year - two wins and a pole - does your preparation change any coming into this year?
"It's pretty good when the driver and the crew chief sit down and look each other in the eye and be totally frustrated with finishing seventh in points, knowing that there are drivers, crew chiefs and teams who have never been in the top-10 in points in their career. And in five years to say that our worst point finish is seventh - that's really not all that bad. I think we have a lot to be proud of, and that's the type of mentality we're taking into this year. In a way it was kind of a good 'pick-me-up' for the team in that it showed all of us that we were frustrated with seventh. It showed us how competitive we are. That's what kept our heads up high and got us really excited for this year."
How much emphasis do you put on the Daytona 500?
"You have to put it in perspective as to what your goal is for the year. If your goal is to win the Daytona 500, you put all of your emphasis into the Daytona 500. If your goal is to win the championship, you have to treat the Daytona 500 the same as you do the Brickyard 400 or any other race on the schedule. There is not much I can do to prepare for the Daytona 500. It's more the team. Do I want to win it? Absolutely. We've won a championship, so I would love to win a Daytona 500. If we don't win it, The Home Depot team goes to Rockingham (N.C.), Vegas, Atlanta - we take it one week at a time and just do the best we can."
Are there any races in particular you'd like to add to your resume?
"The Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 are probably the two that I'd really like to win. But last year we won two races that we'd never won before (Pocono, Pa., in June and Charlotte, N.C., in October). I like being able to win at different tracks. Before it's all said and done, I'd like to be able to say I've won at every race track we've run."
How do you feel about the reduced rear spoiler height and softer compound Goodyear tire that you'll use in 2004?
"It's hard to say. We'll know once we get racing. Hopefully it'll take some of the fuel mileage racing out of the equation, because we'll have the sort of tire wear where guys will have to pit and take on four tires instead of just getting gas to improve their track position. The new rules should get our racing back to the way it used to be, where we have to rely more on tire management than fuel mileage."
What are your initial impressions of Brian France, NASCAR's new CEO?
"I think he's a good leader. He's in the same position that J.D. (Gibbs) is with following in his father's footsteps. Brian has been around this sport long enough and he knows its history, but at the same time he brings in some fresh, new ideas."
With all of the changes happening this season in NASCAR - a new CEO, a new series sponsor, an updated points system, new rules - are you happy with the direction in which NASCAR is headed?
"The sport is definitely different than when I started, but change isn't always a bad thing. Our sport right now is much bigger than it was when I started five years ago. As long as the sport continues to grow, not all changes are bad. I don't think it can be perfect all the time. Technology changes, and with that brings a new set of circumstances that have to be addressed. The good thing is that we have strong leadership in NASCAR that has already proven that they're not afraid to move, and move perhaps more quickly than they have in the past."
Has Joe Gibbs' move to the Redskins changed the day-to-day operations of the race team?
"It hasn't seemed to. J.D. (Gibbs, Joe's oldest son) is entering his seventh year as president of Joe Gibbs Racing. I think he's a little nervous about his new role, but I think he's underestimating his ability as the team leader. J.D. is a really smart guy - a lot smarter than he lets people know. He's been with Joe Gibbs Racing since the day it opened its doors. He's been through every situation that can happen with the race team. He has a great supporting cast with Jimmy Makar as team manager. Jimmy has been there since day one as well, so Jimmy and J.D. have worked together for 12 years now. So I don't see Joe's absence as being a big issue for our race team. Ever since I've been at Joe Gibbs Racing we've had three- and five-year plans. The plans are in place. It's just a matter of executing those plans. Joe wouldn't do anything that he didn't think J.D. and the rest of us couldn't handle. I think everything is going to work out just fine."
Will you miss seeing Joe around during race weekends?
"Yes, I will. If you woke up on race morning after you had a bad final practice the day before, and you felt that if you only got lapped once by the halfway point that you would have a decent day, it would all change after Joe talked to you. You'd feel like you could go out and lap the field by the halfway point. We're obviously going to miss him. I don't know of a person on this earth who doesn't respect Joe Gibbs. I'm just very, very proud of him. He's in a position in his life where he could've sat back and coasted and enjoyed his grandkids and his golf game. But he's a go-getter, and going back to coach the Redskins shows just how much of a competitor Joe Gibbs is, and how eager he is at the age of 63 to go out there and put himself in a very strenuous and physical position of being a football coach."
The #20 team seems to have had very little employee turnover in its five years of existence. Why is that?
"That's one of the strongest things about Joe Gibbs Racing is that we probably have the smallest turnover rate of employees than any other Nextel team out there. All we do is add people to the program. We don't really lose anybody. If we lose, we lose because it's our choice, not because people leave. I think people who come to Joe Gibbs Racing really enjoy their jobs and realize it's a good place to work."
What are your thoughts on Nextel taking over as the series sponsor?
"There's a part in all of us that's going to miss Winston and didn't want to see them go. But at the same time, everybody is excited about what Nextel can bring to our sport. Marketing-wise, Nextel can do some things that Winston couldn't because of the government's restrictions on tobacco. We're all welcoming Nextel with open arms and can't wait to see what happens. This sport is going to be around for a long time. Knowing that somebody like Nextel has the confidence in our sport and in the economy to make a 10-year commitment shows the strength of the France family and of NASCAR."
Testing is not exciting. In fact, it can be downright boring, especially at a superspeedway. How hard is it to keep your concentration, when it seems like the car is doing more work than the driver?
"The guys on the crew are working their tails off each day. But as a driver, it's extremely boring, to be perfectly honest. But you're bouncing around between two cars and the guys are making small changes to each car. Everybody's working on their aerodynamics. Basically, it's just a matter of being patient and going out there and doing a good job of being consistent on each run you make. So when the crew does make their changes, they're doing it from accurate feedback."
You had a chance during the off-season to compete in one of your favorite races - the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla. Why do you enjoy that event so much?
"To me, going to the Chili Bowl is an opportunity for me to hang around with a bunch of guys that don't talk about NASCAR racing. They talk about Sprint Car and Midget racing, and they let me be a Sprint Car and Midget driver for the weekend. They don't care what I'm doing in NASCAR. I mean, they follow it - they know what I've been up to. Most of them said, 'Hey, we're glad to see you back. Glad to see you can still make it.' We had fun doing stuff that we did for years before I went to NASCAR. We went out and had fun when the races were over, and then we raced again the next day. I was just like one of them. They didn't put me on a pedestal. I was just one of the racers. That's what I enjoy - just being one of the guys when I get to go to events like that."
What's the status of your racing teams for 2004?
"My World of Outlaws team is still the same as last year. We still have Danny Lasoski driving. We have made some changes with our USAC program. All the aspects of our Mopar program are being moved into one building. We just got a new shop in Indianapolis. We added a full-time Midget program, and that will be in-house this year. I was a partner with Keith Kunz last year on the Midget deal, but we decided to do it on our own this year. We've got Josh Wise driving the car. We've got Dave Steele running pavement and Jay Drake running pavement and dirt in the #20 car. Cory Kruseman is going to run the #21 car for the Sprint Car Series. So we'll still have the '20' and the '21' car again. And we've got Jay Drake in the Silver Crown car in which I'm partners with George Snider. We've still got all that going on. Dave Steele is going to run the #9 Silver Crown car that I'm partners with Bob East again this year. I own half of the Silver Crown teams, but the whole Midget team and the two Sprint Car teams in USAC plus the Outlaw team I own outright."
J.J. Yeley used to drive for you in USAC, and now he's a teammate to you at Joe Gibbs Racing as he runs an A-B-C schedule of ARCA, Busch Series and Nextel Cup races. Who is replacing Yeley on your USAC team, and what kind of mentoring will you be doing with Yeley as he makes the transition to stock cars?
"Jay Drake is going to drive the Sprint Car this year, and Dave Steele is going to run the pavement races, and we'll run Jay in a third pavement car. But as far as what we do with J.J. here on the NASCAR side, I'll be available whenever he wants me. I know that was a big comfort zone for me when I started in the Busch Series with Joe - having Bobby (Labonte) as a teammate and knowing that if I ever had a question I had somebody to go to. It's nice to do that for somebody else now. Anytime that J.J. has any questions about anything, I'll be there for him."
Will you ever compete in the Indianapolis 500 again?
"I'm not going to run the Indy 500 until I'm done with Nextel Cup. It's not fair to the race team. As many people as we keep adding every year and as competitive as Cup racing gets every year, just the threat of something happening is what is keeping me from doing it. And the technology of the IRL (Indy Racing League) keeps growing. The last time I did it, it took me two days to get acclimated to the way they worked and the way they operated versus two years before that when I was running with my own team. To do the Indy 500 right, you really have to run two or three events with the team you'd be running with at Indy before the Indy 500. It's still a dream of mine and still something I want very badly, but I don't want to do it just to say I did it again."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevroletâ^À¦
You spent last year's off-season cutting bodies off cars as you made the switch from Pontiac to Chevrolet. This off-season you've had to cut all the bodies off your cars again due to changes in template configuration. Was this off-season just as busy as last year's?
"It feels very similar. It's been a lot of work getting these cars rebuilt. Every one of them had to be reskinned. We weren't happy with a lot of the cars we had, so we've ended up reskinning them again. It seems like it's been an extremely short winter."
NASCAR has altered the testing policy this year. Instead of the seven test sessions you received in previous years, this year you have five two-day tests and four single-day tests for a total of 14 testing days. Does the new rule change your testing strategy?
"It gives us a little more leeway as to where we can test. That's fine with me. If they gave me 25 test days I'd be happy."
You're one of the few guys in the garage area who actually enjoys testing. Why?
"We get paid to work and we get paid to perform. The only way you see where you're at and learn how to get better is to go and try different things and work in different directions. That's what this job is about. That's what this sport is about. It's just work, work, work. For me, testing is fun. The pressure is off a little bit. You can reach out into different areas and do things that you don't normally do, and that's where you learn things that make you better. I'd test every week if I could."
What are your thoughts on the altered point system?
"I don't think there's anything wrong with what we had. But I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to make the point system better. We just need to put our faith in NASCAR that it's the right thing for the sport. Their past decisions are the reason this sport is at the height it is today, with a network television deal and a new title sponsor in Nextel. If they feel that's what we need to do, we'll just race that way. I'm not worried about it either way. It's fair for everybody."
With the #20 team's history of always seeming to finish the season strong, could the altered point system work to your benefit?
"I don't know. We're not going to change the way we go race, by any means. We're going to go out and race and try to win every week. Every year it seems like we have something that kind of sets us back a little bit through the mid-part of the season, but then we come on strong toward the end. I'd like to think that it will benefit us a little more than most other people. But last year there were two or three other cars that ran exceptionally well the last third of the season too. We'll just do what we've been doing."
Does Joe Gibbs' move to the Redskins change anything that you do as a crew chief?
"Joe was always good in that he was around to encourage everyone in good times or bad. In that area, we'll all have to step up to make sure the guys around us are motivated and focused. His presence was very positive. But we can't worry about it. We just have to go out and race, run well, and take care of our guys."
When you have a moderately successful season like you did last year - two wins and a pole - does your preparation change any coming into this year?
"We take what we learned from last year and apply it to this year, while also keeping the number of distractions down to a minimum. In this sport you can't have any distractions. You hiccup even the slightest bit and you're going to get run over. This year we're in good shape with our people, our motor program and our body fabrication. Our whole team is in good shape and everybody's pretty pumped up. Last year was a long year, a tough year, and our attitude is we're going to be back on top regardless of what it takes. We're not afraid to work."
Keeping a crew together is obviously important. In the five years that this team has been together, there's been very little employee turnover. How hard or how easy has that been?
"When we started 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. Without them we couldn't have gotten as far as we have in the past four years. Everyone takes a lot of pride in what we've been able to accomplish and how we're structured. They ought to. They all helped and they're all a good group of people. 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."
How much of a technology jump was it when you went from a crew chief in the NASCAR Busch North Series to a crew chief in what we now know as Nextel Cup?
"It's just a whole different deal when you're racing 18 races a year up in the northeast and you're pretty much doing it all yourself. I've painted the cars, put bodies on them, wired them - you did all that stuff. But you come down south and you get more specialized in certain areas. You're dealing with more engineers, more people, more races and you're just trying to make better decisions. Every year it gets, I don't want to say complicated, but there are certainly more variables that you have to keep straight. So, I miss those days an awful lot. I enjoyed working on the cars. Now it's just more people stuff and being organized and preparing and things like that. It's definitely changed, but for the most part I still enjoy it because there are a lot of different challenges."
How tough is it for a crew chief to stay ahead of the ever-increasing technology curve?
"You just try to surround yourself with good people, and hopefully they can help you do some of those things that are cutting edge. You've got to be open-minded enough to take the resources around you and use them to their advantage. Sometimes that's hard when you're used to doing most of it or having most of the responsibilities. It's hard sometimes to adjust, and give other people responsibility and trust. That's a big thing."
As a crew chief, how do you go about pacing yourself and your race team for a season that races 38 weekends over a 10-month span?
"We'll just go until we can't go anymore, I guess. If you stop you're going to get run over in this sport as much as things are changing and as much as we've got going on at the shop. For myself and all of our guys, we've all gotten to take a little bit of time off. We always shut the shop down between Christmas and New Year's. A few people worked to try to get some speedway cars done, but for the most part everybody has gotten a little bit of time off and got to enjoy themselves and their family. We're ready to go again."
It seems like every year there are more and more teams that are capable of competing for a championship, and this year there will be at least 10 with the altered point system. As the level of competition has increased, has the number of championship-caliber teams increased?
"It will probably level off a little bit, but it has surely increased each year that I've been here. For our sake I hope it doesn't increase too much. I just want to keep racing as few cars as we can. But this is a competitive sport that only gets more competitive each year."
On Jan. 23-24 you had your second annual Crusade for Kids charity snowmobile ride in Old Forge, N.Y., an event that raises money for children in need. How did it go?
"The Crusade for Kids ride went really well. It's been a very positive thing in our life as well as many other people's lives. It was an exciting event. It was an awful lot of work for my wife Nan. I don't get to put the same amount of effort into it as she does because of my schedule, but she does a great job with it. We learned a lot from last year's inaugural ride that I really think made this year's ride a lot better."