TONY STEWART Say It Can't Be Done-- I Dare You KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 14, 2009) -- As baseball's post-season heats up, NASCAR's appears to be cooling down, at least if you believe that Jimmie Johnson has all but wrapped up a fourth consecutive...
Say It Can't Be Done-- I Dare You
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Oct. 14, 2009) -- As baseball's post-season heats up, NASCAR's appears to be cooling down, at least if you believe that Jimmie Johnson has all but wrapped up a fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Yes, he's leading the points and yes he's coming off a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., but there are still six races remaining in the 10-race Chase, and three other drivers are within 100 points of Johnson, one of whom is Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR). And when a total of 161 points can be won or lost in a single race, this year's title is far from over.
The halfway point of the Chase comes this Saturday night with the NASCAR Banking 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C. And yes, Johnson has five career Sprint victories at Charlotte, but Stewart is no slouch at the 1.5-mile oval either.
Witness his win in this year's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, where he led the race's final two laps to score the first win of any kind for SHR. Witness also his victory at Charlotte in October 2003-- and his six top-fives, 11 top-10s and 598 laps led in 21 career Sprint Cup starts at Charlotte. And remember the seemingly surefire victory in the 2008 Coca-Cola 600, where Stewart started 31st yet powered his way to lead four times for 23 laps and open up a five-and-a-half second advantage over second-place Kasey Kahne, only to see it vanish three laps short of the finish when he suffered a flat right-front? In an instant, victory turned into an 18th-place finish.
So, pardon the chip resting on Stewart's broad shoulders, for the first-year driver/owner has done what no driver/owner has done since Alan Kulwicki did in 1992 -- contend for a Sprint Cup championship.
Remember last year when Stewart decided to leave the comfy confines of Joe Gibbs Racing, where he won 33 Sprint Cup races and two championships, and people openly questioned whether he'd ever win again, never mind place himself in the thick of a title hunt? Stewart responded by taking the point lead after round 13 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway and building that lead to as high as 260 points thanks to impressive wins at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in June, Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in July and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International in August.
And remember when that massive point margin was erased following the regular season cutoff race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway and Stewart actually dropped to second in the standings, 10 points behind Chase leader Mark Martin? He responded by winning the third Chase race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas Speedway and providing a reminder that Johnson's fourth title is anything but a sure thing.
Yet here we are again, with talk that this year's title race is already decided. That's like saying that even with two divisional series and a World Series still to play that the Yankees are this year's World Series champions. The Angels, Phillies and Dodgers might have something to say about that, just like Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya and Martin have their respective eyes on claiming this year's Sprint Cup title for themselves.
The NASCAR Banking 500 provides another opportunity for Stewart and his counterparts to usurp Johnson from his perch atop the points. And you can take that to the bank.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You're fourth in points, 84 points behind Johnson. Can you still win this championship and collect your third career Sprint Cup title?
"My standpoint has always been, until they say that you're mathematically out of it, you always have a shot. We won the USAC Silver Crown Series championship in '95, and we were the third driver of three that had a shot, mathematically, to win it. There were two drivers, Jack Hewitt and Dave Darland, that were neck-and-neck in the point standings, and we were kind of the third wheel. We were only included in the group media sessions because we were mathematically in the hunt. Both of those drivers ended up having problems in the race, and we won the championship by two points. You realize when you use that experience, knowing that as long as you're mathematically in the hunt, you still have a shot. If we have a chance to win the championship at the end, trust me, we're all for that and we would love nothing more than that. But I think right now where we're at and how many points we need to make up, I think it lets us have a go-for-broke attitude and just go out and try to do what we did at Kansas and win races. I've always said, if you win races, the points will take care of itself. We could still, by theory, win the next six races in a row and still not win the point championship. For us, it's about going out and doing what we can do, and the other 11 drivers are going to dictate their fates, too."
Because Johnson has been so successful and because he's back atop the point standings, is he the guy to beat for the championship?
"I don't feel like that's the only guy we're worrying about. I feel like we've got to worry about Mark (Martin) just as much and Juan (Montoya) just as much. Right now, we've got a bunch of guys that are consistent every week. You can't just narrow it down to one right now."
After finishing 14th and ninth, respectively, in the first two Chase races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and Dover (Del.) International Speedway, you rebounded in decisive fashion with your win at Kansas. What did that performance say about your Old Spice/Office Depot team?
"I'm really proud of Darian Grubb (crew chief) and all the guys on this Old Spice/Office Depot team. There is no quit in this team at all. We just keep digging. I don't care what it takes. I don't care if we have to go 12 laps down and have the right side knocked off of it, if it gets us a top-five at the end of the day, that's what we have to do the rest of the season. At the end of the day, no matter what the circumstance that got us behind, we've been able to rebound from it -- not get all the way up to where we wanted, but we were able to make gains on it at the end and salvage a better finish than where we were. Whatever the scenarios were, we were able to overcome part of it. As long as you do that, then at the end of the day the facts just shows this team doesn't have any quit in them, and that's what it's going to take to get back on top
Of the upcoming tracks in the final six races on this year's schedule, which one are you looking forward to the most?
"I think this weekend, in all reality. This weekend and Martinsville, Talladega, Texas and Phoenix are places where we've had a lot of success, but I think the way that we've ran the last couple of races at Charlotte here, we're pretty excited about it. I feel like we've got a shot at this weekend's race. If we can do what we've been doing, we've got just as good a shot as anybody else."
You've had a handful of races in your career that you feel like you should've won, but is the 2008 Coca-Cola 600 the one that sticks out most?
"Yeah, that's definitely the one that sticks out the most in my mind. I mean, we had a five-second lead with three laps to go. We lost the right-front tire, but it wasn't because of a mistake by Goodyear, it was the fact that we had run 100 laps on the right side tire, so it just physically melted the bead on the right-front. So it wasn't any fault of Goodyear's, it was just circumstances."