TONY STEWART Looking Sharp Entering Sharpie 500 ATLANTA (Aug. 22, 2006) - In the past five NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races, Tony Stewart has gained six point positions, rising from 11th after the July 16 race at New Hampshire to fifth entering ...
Looking Sharp Entering Sharpie 500
ATLANTA (Aug. 22, 2006) - In the past five NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races, Tony Stewart has gained six point positions, rising from 11th after the July 16 race at New Hampshire to fifth entering Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
With back-to-back finishes of 30th or worse at Chicagoland and then New Hampshire, Stewart was out of the ever-important top-10 with only seven races before the onset of the chase for the championship - where only the top-10 drivers are eligible to compete for the series' title.
But while pundits fretted as to whether Stewart would return to the top-10, the two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champion set the speculation aside and focused on what he does best - driving fast.
As a result, Stewart is back to being a fixture among the top-10 in points. Thanks to four straight top-10 finishes, including consecutive top-three results via a second-place finish at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) and a third-place effort last Sunday at Michigan, Stewart has earned a healthy 127-point margin over 11th place Kasey Kahne.
The upcoming race at Bristol marks the third to last race before the chase for the championship begins, and it's a venue where Stewart can further solidify his top-10 status.
With his familiar No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet, Stewart has led 828 laps around the .533-mile, high-banked oval. He has scored four top-fives and five top-10s, including a win in August 2001. He also has a pole to his Bristol resume, setting fast time as a rookie in just his second Nextel Cup start at the track in August 1999.
But it's 2006. How good is Stewart at Bristol now?
In the Nextel Cup Series' first trip to Bristol on March 26, Stewart led eight times for a race-high 245 laps. Handling issues in the last 25 laps sent him to an undeserved 12th place finish, but Stewart's time up front served notice that he still had a knack for getting around the track some have likened to flying fighter jets inside a gymnasium.
With the same car that dominated Bristol five months ago, Stewart returns to Bristol intent on winning - the race and the championship.
After dominating this year's spring race at Bristol, you ended up 12th. What happened?
"We had an awesome car all day. I felt like I ran the most patient race I had ever run at Bristol. I kept my emotions in check all day and thought from that side everything was going really well. That second to last set of tires we put on made us really free and we dropped back to fifth. Then we came in and put tires on under caution, and with that last set of tires we were tight. I couldn't turn it through the center of the corner at all. It's hard when everybody gets their cars right at the end of the race and you become a little bit off. It was hard to hold those guys back. So we just tried to race smart there and bring our car home in one piece."
With the pressure upon some drivers to make the cut for the chase for the championship, will it make Bristol an even more aggressive race?
"I don't think it'll be any different. I still think when it comes to racing, guys are simply just racing. I think at the end of the day they look at the point standings, but for the most part, the whole time you're out there you're worried about winning the race or doing as well as you can. I really don't think people's mindsets will change."
Now that the chase for the championship seems to be taking shape, have you thought about a strategy to use during the final 10-race stretch to the finish?
"If you win races the points take care of themselves. Every week when we go to the track we're going to try to win the race, and if we can't win we'll finish as high as we can and get as many points as we can. Once we do that, the points will just have to be what they are."
Are you looking to see who's ahead of you in points and who's behind you? Is there any concern about staying in the top-10 for the last three races before the chase for the championship begins Sept. 17 at New Hampshire?
"We'll take it one day at a time. I mean, we're not worried about anything because we just have to go and do our job every week. Typically, we've been in the top-10 in points every year since we've been in the Cup series. We're not reinventing the wheel here. We just don't need to have any bad luck. That's what it really boils down to. We're not doing anything differently. You just can't afford to have a bad day. You don't have to have a great day, but you just can't afford to have a bad day."
Because things happen so quickly at Bristol, are your senses heightened more so than they are at other tracks?
"You just don't have time to relax. Everything happens so fast. At the end of the day when the race is done and your adrenaline wears off, you're worn out. But when you're in the car and the adrenaline's pumping, you don't get in that smooth, calm rhythm that you do at a place like Michigan or California where you've got big, sweeping corners and long straightaways. There's no time to relax. You don't get that luxury at Bristol. It's standard short track racing."
Do you go into Bristol knowing that a little more give-and-take will be needed to ensure a strong finish?
"You've got to make sure that you keep the fenders on your car all day and that you're not beating up your race car. If that means a guy gets underneath you and you've got to let him go, then that's what you do. But at the same time, you still have to race hard and not give up track position and lap times because it doesn't take long before you're in lapped traffic. It's a track where you need to be really aggressive, but at the same time, taking care of your equipment all day is key."
There always seems to be a ton of contact at Bristol. How do you balance patience with aggressiveness?
"I think the contact you see at Bristol is more from being so close to one another while going so fast. All it takes is a small bobble on someone's part to cause a chain reaction of guys bumping into each other. It doesn't necessarily cause a wreck, but it gets guys beating and banging on one another. It's not out of necessity. It's just the set of circumstances you have there. Bristol is a place where you have to really be careful. You have to be very patient. We all run so fast there as a group that you really have to take your time when you go to pass somebody. If somebody gets someone else hung out on the outside, it's easy to just tuck in behind the guy on the inside and follow him on by. That's the easiest way to pass cars at Bristol. If you have a good handling car, you've got to take care of it. Taking care of your fenders is the biggest variable in the equation."
You've said in the past that Bristol is your favorite track, but your four top-fives are offset by nine finishes of 15th or worse, two of which were DNFs (Did Not Finish). That being said, is Bristol still your favorite track?
"It's one of my favorites, but Bristol is a track that's feast or famine. If you have a really good day, it's a lot of fun. But if you have one little problem, it normally makes for a very long day. We've had more long days than good days. But last year we finished third in the spring race to finally get a good finish there, and we backed it up in the night race with a top-10. And then this year we led a bunch of laps before the handling went away there at the end. Hopefully, it's a sign of better things to come."
The Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 are crown jewel races, but winning at Bristol is also pretty special. How so?
"It's awesome. The coolest thing about Bristol is that you have 160,000 fans that you can see all day long or all night long. I can remember races where I passed Jeff Gordon for the lead and I could see the people cheering. It's one of the coolest tracks I've ever been to in my life. The grandstands are right on top of you. I mean, when you get out of the car after practice or qualifying, you can see what the fans are eating and what they're drinking. You're that close. And as hard as it is to win a race there - because you've got to have a perfect day to do it - really makes you cherish a win there. The one win that I have there is one of the best wins of my career. Anybody who wins at Bristol appreciates it."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
How important is it to work with Tony Stewart at a place like Bristol, where staying cool and keeping your calm is key when spins and crashes and beating and banging is just a part of the race?
"Bristol is just one of those places where it's so easy to put yourself over the edge, whether it be me in my position or Tony in his position. It's one of those places where being calm and cool will prevail throughout the day. You try not to put yourself in bad positions. You try to think ahead and look ahead. It's one of those places were you truly have to be there at the end, and it doesn't take much not to be there. But you've got to have a good race car. It doesn't matter how cool or calm you are if you don't have a good car. Your car has got to do everything you need it to do or you're off. Things happen so fast because that place is so quick and the groove is so limited. You've got to be on your game."