TONY STEWART The Key is Consistency ATLANTA (Oct. 11, 2005) - Tony Stewart earned himself a bit of breathing room with his fourth-place finish last Sunday at Kansas. The driver of the ...
The Key is Consistency
ATLANTA (Oct. 11, 2005) - Tony Stewart earned himself a bit of breathing room with his fourth-place finish last Sunday at Kansas. The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing picked up 71 points on his nearest Chase pursuer - Ryan Newman - to hold a 75-point lead in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series point standings heading into Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte (N.C.).
It's the sixth to last race before a champion is crowned following the season finale at Homestead (Fla.), and while six races may seem as a small stretch when placed amidst the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule, Stewart knows continued steadiness is key to scoring a second NASCAR championship.
When Stewart won the 2002 Cup Series championship, he entered Charlotte with a 72-point margin over Mark Martin. He obviously maintained that lead through the final six races, but when the checkered flag fell at Homestead, Martin had lopped 34 points from Stewart's lead. Stewart's consistency was the only thing that allowed him to keep Martin at bay. Stewart's average finish in those last six races was 10th, while Martin's was seventh. Despite Martin's better results in the last six races, Stewart's point margin was too much to overcome.
As exasperating as it was for one driver to overcome the point leader in 2002, it appears equally exasperating for the six drivers still within 100 points of Stewart. With the exception of second-place Ryan Newman who finished 23rd at Kansas, the top-eight drivers in points finished in the top-10 at Kansas. Third-place Greg Biffle finished second, fourth-place Rusty Wallace finished seventh, fifth-place Jimmie Johnson finished sixth and sixth-place Carl Edwards finished third. But because of Stewart's fourth-place run at Kansas, only Biffle and Edwards gained points on Stewart, and they were minuscule points at that. Even Martin, who won the Kansas race and picked up 10 bonus points for leading the most laps, gained little ground on Stewart, as Martin sits in seventh, a distant 113 points back. And eighth-place Matt Kenseth, who finished fifth at Kansas, still lost ground to Stewart, as he is 116 points arrears.
The future looks bright for Stewart and bleak for those chasing him. Of the six races remaining on the Nextel Cup schedule, Stewart has won at five of the venues, including Charlotte, where he won the 2003 UAW-GM Quality 500. The only track remaining on the schedule where Stewart has yet to record a victory is Texas, site of the Nov. 6 Dickies 500.
As someone who has won numerous driving titles - the 2002 Cup Series championship, the 1997 IRL IndyCar championship, four United States Auto Club championships, a World Karting Association National championship and an International Karting Grand National championship - Stewart is well-versed in the art of maintaining and obtaining the big, end-of-the-year trophy. And in a points battle as tight as the one currently being waged in the Nextel Cup ranks, Stewart knows that the most important race is the next race. In this case, it's the UAW-GM Quality 500.
Which would you rather be, the position you're in now where you're the point leader and everyone is chasing you, or where you're chasing the point leader?
"If I spent that much time worrying about what everybody else was doing, I'm really not doing my job as a driver. It's more important for me to make sure we're doing everything 100 percent. We can't control what they do anyway, so why worry about what they're doing? The only thing we can control is what we do. We need to focus 100 percent of our energy on what we're doing and not on what everybody else is doing."
Do you enjoy running the October Charlotte race at nighttime?
"I like it. I enjoy having Sundays off. The crew guys can have a day off. We as drivers can have a day off. Folks in racing can live like normal people for a day. When we race on Sunday, the crew guys don't get a day off on Monday. They have to be at the shop. Weekends where we have a Saturday night race gives the crew guys a bit of a breather on Sunday."
It's been said that the track surface at Charlotte changes a lot. How so?
"It's temperature sensitive, and depending upon when we practice and what time of day we make our runs, you kind of have to plan ahead for knowing what the track is going to do. We'll watch it, paying attention to what time the practices are and we'll set up The Home Depot Chevrolet accordingly. If the car's not driving perfect in practice that doesn't mean it's bad, because you know the track is going to cool off. You don't want to adjust a whole lot because you might overcompensate for a condition that's not even going to be there when the race starts. So, you really have to plan ahead."
What kind of role do aerodynamics play at Charlotte?
"Charlotte's not as bad as some of the other tracks. Aero does play a role, but Charlotte is still a handling race track. You've got to get your car to drive well and handle well. That's the main thing at Charlotte."
How much of a help is it toward the preparation of your Nextel Cup race at Charlotte that you and your crew chief will be able to work together on a Busch Series car that will also race at Charlotte?
"It definitely gives us an opportunity to take what we learn from the Busch car and apply it to the Cup car. Greg (Zipadelli) will see it first-hand, versus a situation if I was driving for a different team where Greg would learn what the car was doing from what I told him. With Zippy being right there and able to work on both cars, it's something that even though will be hectic and very busy for us, it'll be something we can take advantage of."
With a grinder having been used to smooth the surface of the 1.5-mile Charlotte oval since you last raced there in May, is the extra track time you'll get in the Busch car even more important?
"Just being able to be on the track more is a good thing, considering the track is a different race track from the one we raced on in May. It's certainly an advantage. What we learn on one side of the garage area will help us on the other side and vice versa."
You tested The Home Depot Chevrolet and your Busch car at Charlotte in mid-September. How did it go?
"We were running unbelievable speeds there. I ran a 29 flat with the Busch car. I ran a 28.98 with the Cup car and Jimmie Johnson ran in the 28s in his Busch car. So it definitely picked up speed from the Cup test a week before to the Busch test a week later. The Busch car ran within two-hundredths of a second of my fastest speed in the Cup car, and I think we were the fastest Cup car there in testing. Jimmie Johnson ran faster in his Busch car than we ran in our Cup car there. So with that, we know when we go back it's going to be even faster yet for the Cup cars."
What did you think of the track grinding? Was it necessary?
"Humpy (Wheeler, Lowe's Motor Speedway track president) did a really good job. None of us wanted him to change it in the first place. But with that, Humpy is not one of those guys who is just going to sit there and say well tough - that's what it is and deal with it. He has re-ground the rest of the track. But after a couple of us suggested dragging some tires around it, he dragged truck tires around it for four days and got a lot of rubber in the track and it seemed to have helped it quite a bit. As far as the track being real sensitive to the groove and this and that, I don't think it's near as bad as what it was when the Cup cars tested there. It's a lot better. But with that, we're running wicked fast speeds there right now."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
How much of a help is it toward the preparation of your Nextel Cup race at Charlotte that you and your driver are able to work together on a Busch Series car that will also race at Charlotte?
"The race track seemed to be a lot better when we tested the Busch car. It helped build our confidence back as a group. We ran well with it. We worked on the car and we were pretty decent from a speed standpoint. By God that race track is fast now. It'll be interesting to see how it is when we go back and race. We'll see if there will be any passing because it's so fast. The grip was better, but it wasn't awesome to where you could have a lot of side-by-side racing. We'll just have to wait and see."