Charlotte Tony Stewart; a force to be reckoned with

CHARLOTTE, N.C., (May 16, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the ...

CHARLOTTE, N.C., (May 16, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, proved early on during the 1999 season that he was a force to be reckoned with.

It was with good reason. He earned the outside pole at the season-opening Daytona 500, nabbed the pole in just his eighth start at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, notched back-to-back top-10 finishes at Fort Worth (Texas) and Bristol (Tenn.), then upped the ante by scoring back-to-back top-five finishes at Talladega (Ala.) and Fontana (Calif.). All of this occurred before mid-May, when Stewart and The Home Depot team ventured into Charlotte's version of Speedweeks.

At that time, Stewart was one of the most talked about stories in sports. In addition to the relative ease that Stewart had in adapting to stock cars and the media frenzy that went along with it, the Columbus, Ind., was in the process of trying to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. That meant shuttling back-and-forth between Charlotte and Indianapolis, as he tried to practice and qualify his Home Depot Pontiac at Charlotte, and his Home Depot-sponsored Dallara/Aurora Indy Racing League entry at the Brickyard.

It was proving to be a grueling schedule, but Stewart never let the travel, the time constraints, the pressure or anything else distract him from the job at hand - going as fast as an engine and four tires would take him.

Stewart handily won his 25-lap qualifying race, which earned him the outside pole for The Winston Open. From there, he led all but one of the 50 laps in The Open, taking the win and advancing into The Winston. After threading his way through a multi-car wreck on lap 11 that gobbled up 10 unlucky drivers, Stewart finished second to Terry Labonte.

Entering 2000 as a three-time race winner, Stewart won't have to compete in any qualifying races or The Winston Open. The Winston is all he'll have to focus on. Hungry for a win in 2000, place your bets on Stewart to let loose with a win in The Winston.

Going into last year's Winston Open, did you know how capable your car was going to be that evening?

"No, not really. I knew going into The Open that The Home Depot Pontiac was good just from the times that we ran in comparison to some of the other drivers that were in The Open - both in practice and in the 25-lap sprint races. But starting at the tail end of The Winston, I figured everything we learned up to that point might at least break us even with those guys, but I didn't know that we were going to have that good of a car."

Did you think that you would have such a good shot at winning The Winston once you advanced into that race?

"There's no way I would've planned or predicted that. They had a big wreck that played a big role in that race. It took out a lot of good race cars. Even so, I don't think I could've sat there and said that we would even finish in the top-three. I just felt like we were really fortunate to get up there."

The Winston Open was your first trip, unofficially, to victory lane in a Winston Cup car. What was that like?

"It was awesome. To do what we did, even though it wasn't with a full field…I mean just to win a race. Winning is winning to me. I was real appreciative of it and just excited that we got to victory lane once."

What kind of game plan did you establish for yourself once you made it into The Winston?

"We had no game plan. We went wide-open. We didn't have anything to lose. We started on the tail of the field, Greg (Zipadelli, crew chief) and I basically looked at each other and said that we were gonna go out there and have fun. It was just like a Saturday night short track race. We were gonna race and have a good time doing it. That's what we did."

Because there are no points to lose and there is a lot of money to gain, do you try things in The Winston that you wouldn't normally try in a typical points-paying race?

"You're not as easy on the equipment. You run really hard the whole race. There's no saving your tires like there is in the 500-mile races."

Since last year's run in The Winston went so well, are you and the team going about this year's race in the same manner?

"I think we'll see how The Home Depot Pontiac is driving when we get there. If we get a car that drives as good as the one we had last year, heck yeah, I'll risk wrecking the car to go for the win."

Will not running The Winston Open help or hinder you this year?

"Well, there's a lot of things that can happen in The Open, too.  But I don't think it's
going to hurt us.  I mean, it doesn't give anyone an advantage except for the guy who wins
The Open.  It puts us at a level playing field, that's all."

Will you use the same car for The Winston that you'll use for the Coca-Cola 600 a week later?

"Normally no, just for the fact that you're going to take more chances in The Winston. You don't want to crash the car that you're going to run the 600 with. That's not a risk you want to take."

Does The Winston serve as a test session for the Coca-Cola 600?

"Maybe to a certain degree, but you pretty much have to treat them as different events. A lot of times our cars are really good from about lap 25 on. Well in The Winston, by lap 25 the segment is over. So, we've got to go into it with a little different game plan and a little different setup probably."

How much does Charlotte change between daytime and nighttime?

"Charlotte's one of the few tracks across the country that really changes drastically with the heat. It'll change a bunch, really."

How do you adjust to that?

"If you can get your car driving well, it doesn't matter what everybody else does. You race the race track more than you race everybody else there." <pre> TONY STEWART'S PERFORMANCE PROFILE IN THE WINSTON OPEN & THE WINSTON Year Event Start Finish Status/Laps Earnings 1999 The Winston 21 2 Running/70 $155,037 The Winston Open 2 1 Running/50 $33,460

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Terry Labonte , Tony Stewart