DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 15, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix, won the Rookie of the Year title last year en route to scoring three wins (Richmond on 9/11, Phoenix on 11/7 and Homestead on 11/14) and two...
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 15, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix, won the Rookie of the Year title last year en route to scoring three wins (Richmond on 9/11, Phoenix on 11/7 and Homestead on 11/14) and two poles (Martinsville on 4/16 and Bristol on 8/27), while racking up 13 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes. Stewart ended the 1999 season fourth in the championship point standings - the first time since 1966 that a rookie had finished his season within the top-five in points.
With Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Dave Blaney, Mike Bliss, Stacy Compton, Scott Pruett, Jeff Fuller and Ed Berrier comprising the largest rookie class in NASCAR history, the battle for the 2000 Rookie of the Year title is shaping up to be a heated one. Defending Rookie of the Year winner Stewart offers his thoughts on this year's rookie crop.
How would you rate this year's rookie class?
"I'd rate 'em pretty high because I'll probably be going to those guys asking for advice. They've got a really good batch of credentials and they're all here because they deserve to be in Winston Cup. I think they're going to be just fine. I think what The Home Depot team did this past year, that there's a good possibility that it could be overshadowed pretty quickly this year."
Are there any rookies in particular that you think will stand out over the rest?
"Obviously Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Dave Blaney are the three that come to my mind right off the bat. Those guys have always run quick in whatever cars they've been in. The championship battles that they've had the last couple of years prove that they're going to be contenders this year."
What was your toughest challenge as a rookie?
"A lot of it was just learning the race tracks and learning the race cars and each driver and how to be patient for 500 laps or 500 miles. That was the biggest thing."
What adjustments will this year's rookie class have to make?
"I think they're used to semi-long races. All three of those guys ran five Cup races last year and ran some longer races so they're accustomed to it. I don't think there's a lot they're going to have to adjust to this year. They're going to be just fine."
What's your advice to this year's rookie class?
"Just keep doing what they've been doing. What they've been doing in the Busch Series has worked for them and it'll work in Cup too."
Will the open-wheel backgrounds of Blaney and Bliss give them an advantage over the rest of their counterparts?
"I don't think it'll necessarily work that way, but it sure won't hurt them. These Winston Cup cars are different animals, and what we learn in open wheel cars is how to adapt. It just depends on how quickly they adapt to these cars, and it depends on if they have the right crew chief and the right team. There's certainly potential there, but you never know what to really expect until you see them on the race track."
Which rookies do you think have aligned themselves with the best team?
"I think Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth and Blaney have worked with the same guys that they're going to be working with this year. That combination and that bond is definitely something that's going to help them this year."
Heading into a typical race weekend, what's a rookie's toughest challenge?
"Making sure he gets to the rookie driver's meeting on time. NASCAR holds those meeting early on Friday morning, and the hardest thing to do is to make yourself get up to be at the rookie meeting on time."