TONY STEWART March to the Championship ATLANTA (Oct. 24, 2005) - General William Sherman marched to the sea from Atlanta, while NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart looks to march to a championship from Atlanta. The driver of the ...
March to the Championship
ATLANTA (Oct. 24, 2005) - General William Sherman marched to the sea from Atlanta, while NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart looks to march to a championship from Atlanta.
The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't plundered and burned his way to the top of the Nextel Cup championship point standings. In un-Sherman-like fashion, Stewart has instead used canny and discipline to lead the points for 11 of the last 12 races.
Now with just four races remaining and a 15-point lead on his nearest championship pursuer Jimmie Johnson, Stewart sees opportunity in Atlanta where Sherman just saw smoke.
Buoyed by four top-fives and seven top-10s in his last eight races at the 1.54-mile oval, including a win at the 2002 spring race, Stewart knows that a strong run at NASCAR's fastest race track is essential toward securing a second NASCAR title to go alongside his 2002 championship trophy.
Strong runs have been Stewart's forte in 2005. The Columbus, Ind., native is enjoying a career year, with five wins, three poles, 16 top-fives, 22 top-10s and 1,829 laps led. As a result, Stewart leads the series in top-fives, top-10s, laps led, miles lead and bonus points earned.
While Sherman's Civil War era is long gone, it appears that Stewart's era is now. Linking the two combatants across 140 years is Atlanta, home to Sunday's Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500.
People are pointing to you and Jimmie Johnson as favorites to win the championship. Do you buy that?
"At this point I think everybody looks at Jimmie and I as two of the guys. But you can't count any of the other guys out either. Anything can happen. We've had two bad races. Jimmie's had one bad race. Everybody is going to have little things happen. With four weeks to go, you can't narrow it down yet. It's too early. Mathematically, everybody is still in it. As long as everybody is mathematically in it, I don't know how you can count anybody out of it."
Much has been made of your calm demeanor this season, of being able to handle adversity better. Has this been a concerted effort on your part?
"I think we've been really good this year when we've had adversity. We've been able to take the negative and find the positive in it. Charlotte (N.C.) was a bad race (25th place finish), but before we even left, we were in a better frame of mind as a team than when we were at Dover (Del.) where we ran 18th with the problems we had. I think that's the stuff that helps you win championships. There's no guarantee that we're going to do it, but we can't do it if we have a bad frame of mind going into a race.
"I'm at a point where I'm comfortable enough with myself now that I can look at the big picture and lead by the example that Joe Gibbs has given Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) and I. Zippy has done it for the past six years and now I'm able to do my part. It's not like I'm doing it myself. I'm one of many people who are doing it. When I'm not dragging the team down, I think it helps all of us. When the one person who is dragging everybody back gets on the same page and does his part, it makes a huge difference.
"It definitely surprises me to be in that position. It makes me proud that I've done that and it makes my team proud that I've been able to do that. It's not something where we say, 'Hey, this is what we need to do each week.' It's just something that's happening. And the fact that it's happened naturally is what we're most proud of. To see some of the things that this team has gone through this year, in years past we would've probably been grenading internally. Nobody outside of the team would've have seen it, but it would've affected our performance. Now this year, all it's done is motivate us more."
What are the keys to being successful at Atlanta?
"You just have to constantly adjust your race car. We've led so many laps in the first half of a race there and then been outside the top-five at the end of the day because we didn't stay caught up with the changing track conditions. Atlanta cools off so much and changes so much that you always have to be on top of your setups. You need to make sure that you have enough adjustability as the day goes on. You don't want to get your car so good at the first half of the day that it gets too tight at the end of the day. You almost have to be a little bit on the loose side to really be good at the end of the day."
With Joe Gibbs Racing's history at Atlanta and with Home Depot being headquartered in Atlanta, how big of an event is the Atlanta race weekend?
"Atlanta is always a big weekend for us with Home Depot's headquarters being down there. And with all the wins Bobby's (Labonte, Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate) had down there (six), I guess we have a reputation to uphold. It's where I got my first 500-mile win and I have a lot of friends down there. It's a track I like. It's a driver's track. It's one-and-a-half miles and fast."
At Atlanta's sister race track - Charlotte Motor Speedway - you've logged a win, four top-threes, six top-fives and nine top-10s in 14 point-paying starts. Can your success at Charlotte transfer to Atlanta?
"Not really. The tracks are so different. Even though the layouts look similar, the shape is quite a bit different and the surfaces are different. At Atlanta you can take The Home Depot Chevy from the wall to the apron and run anywhere you want - not so much at Charlotte. They each have the same layout, but each of them has their own personality. Some things do apply, but some things don't. So that means that there aren't any guarantees on what you think you might have going into Atlanta. You have to drive the two tracks totally different from one another."
Until your ninth-place finish in the fall of 2001, Atlanta was the last track for you to score a top-10 finish. In your very next race at Atlanta in the spring of 2002 you won, and you've finished outside of the top-10 only one since. Can you explain your progress at Atlanta?
"Greg Zipadelli has found a package that works really well there. I'm extremely comfortable in my car there, and every time we go back it seems like we just make The Home Depot Chevrolet a little bit better. It's not a track that we spent a lot of time testing at, but Bobby Labonte's reputation and track record at Atlanta have always been good, and that did help us. We haven't won a lot of races there. We've only won one. But it is a track I like."
What's the trickiest part to making a quick lap at Atlanta?
"It has its set of bumps. You need to make sure your car gets over the bumps but still turns well. Normally, if you turn after you hit the bumps, you're tight. If you turn before you hit the bumps, you're loose. Just finding that common balance - getting the car over the bumps but having it turn at the same time - that's what you're shooting for. And because the track is such a momentum race track, if you're a little bit off it seems like you're way off. If your stuff isn't right, you can't expect to run with the pack all day. You've got to be on your game, because it seems like there's always two or three guys who always get it right. And everybody's who's just a little bit off - it shows up big time on the clock."
Explain a lap around Atlanta.
"The frontstretch is a D-shape, so you're running a natural arc all the way into (turn) one, but you kind of drop down into one when you turn the car into the corner. There are a couple of bumps that tend to upset the car, and you really have to work on your shock package on Friday to get your car nice and stable through there. But as soon as you go through those bumps and you get the car settled down, you're right back in the gas, carrying a lot of momentum off of (turn) two and down the backstretch right into (turn) three. You can carry a lot more momentum into three than you feel like you can, but that can be what hurts you later in a run because you're abusing the tires by getting into the corner so hard. But once you get to the bottom of three, the entrance into (turn) four comes up quick. It's a little bit tight getting in there, so you have to be careful and pay close attention to what's happening around you. Atlanta is fast because it allows you to be on the gas so often."