Chicagoland: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Halfway Home, Sort of ATLANTA (July 7, 2004) - The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series' visit to Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., for Sunday's Tropicana 400 marks round number 18 on the 36-race schedule. It's the official halfway ...

Tony Stewart
Halfway Home, Sort of

ATLANTA (July 7, 2004) - The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series' visit to Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., for Sunday's Tropicana 400 marks round number 18 on the 36-race schedule. It's the official halfway point for competitors in NASCAR's elite division, with the season finale taking place Nov. 21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Home Depot Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart is an impressive fourth in points despite enduring a roller-coaster first half of 2004. He opened the season strong with a second-place effort in the Daytona 500, but his seven other top-10 finishes have been offset by eight finishes of 15th or worse. Coming into Chicagoland, Stewart is 110 markers arrears third-place Jeff Gordon, 315 points behind second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., and 342 points away from series leader Jimmie Johnson.

But in 2004, that kind of a point deficit is a moot point. Beginning with the Tropicana 400, Nextel Cup drivers have just eight races left to either stay in the top-10 or break into the top-10 before becoming eligible for the final 10-race "Chase for the Championship." For Stewart and Co., their goal is maintaining their top-10 status, because following the Sept. 11 race at Richmond (Va.), those in the top-10 get their points adjusted. The leader will get 5,050 points, with a five-point breakdown for each subsequent position through the remainder of top-10. It's essentially a new season.

But compared to other racing series, the entire second half of the Nextel Cup season is a season in itself. Formula One's season is 18 races long, while the IRL IndyCar Series has just 16 races this year. Champ Car has 16 races also, but three are at venues to be determined, while the Trans Am Series and the American LeMans Series have 19 races combined.

Much will happen in the next eight races and again in the final 10. Needless to say, the race is on - twice.

As we come into the mid-point of the season, what are your thoughts on your season to date? And what is your outlook for the second half of the year?

"I'm not totally satisfied with it, but I don't think anyone is totally satisfied with the way their season is going. You always want to be better than what you are. Basically, we just need as many good runs as we can get. People talk about momentum in this sport and how important it is. We'd like to create a little bit of our own with a strong run at Chicago. This is typically the point in the season where we excel, and we need to make the most of it. We need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way."

Does the new point system change the way you race?

"Not at all. We take each race one week at a time just like we've done every other season. You can't be worrying about the points. If you do your job each week and try to win the race, it's like I've always said, the points will take care of themselves - no matter what the format is. If you change what you're doing just to adjust to the new points system, I think you're going to run into trouble. If you always try to win, then that means you're always trying to get as many points as possible. I don't know why anyone would go away from that."

After restrictor plate racing at Daytona (Fla.), are you looking forward to racing at Chicagoland?

"Absolutely. What you do at Chicago is solely based on what you and your team can do with your race car, not what drafting line you're in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move. There are too many variables out of your control in a plate race. At Chicago, we're back in control. There are still things out there that can screw up your day, but they're minimal when compared to what we dealt with at Daytona."

Chicagoland and its sister track in Kansas look exactly alike. Are they?

"They're about as close as you can get to being the same. You aren't going to find any two tracks that are more identical than Kansas and Chicago. The only difference between the two tracks - the backstretch at Chicago is a little bit rounded while Kansas' is straight."

With grip being an issue since Chicagoland is still a relatively new track, where are the passing zones?

"I think you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy that misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn't make a mistake and you've got a little better car than they do, I honestly think the groove will move up a little bit this year to where it'll be a little wider and you'll have more room to get a run on a guy. But as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car's handling will become more important. And when a guy makes a mistake you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up."

Why is it that races at D-shaped ovals seem to be won in fairly dominating fashion?

"If a guy gets going and gets his car balanced, then he'll tend to run away. That's just the characteristic of that kind of track. It's fast, it's flat and momentum is so important there, that if a guy is off just a little, he's off a lot. The drivers like it from the standpoint that if you can find a way to get around it a little better, then it'll help them in the long run. You end up racing the race track instead of each other."

Track position and pit strategy seem to be the two biggest variables at Chicagoland. When and how do you make the decision to sacrifice tires for track position, or depending on the circumstances, track position for tires?

"I think it just depends on how your car is working. If your car is driving well, one that keeps you up toward the front all day because it's fast, then just two tires can keep you pretty quick. In that situation, you could make a big gain at the end by just taking on two tires and maintaining your track position. Even some guys who are behind and don't have their car the way they want, by taking on two tires, the track position they gain helps out more than four tires would. But when you get right down to it, I think Chicago is a track where if your car's good, then it doesn't matter whether you take two tires or four."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:

Chicagoland and its sister track in Kansas look exactly alike. Are they?

"There are some similarities. The transitions into the corners are a little bit different from Chicago to Kansas, so that'll make your front spring combinations a little bit different. But other than that, everything is real similar. You drive each track the same way. We ran really good at Chicago last year and we ran well at Kansas last fall, so we're hoping to go back to Chicago and run well again. For years we kind of struggled at the mile-and-a-half ovals, but it seemed that last year we kind of progressed a lot. Las Vegas was a pretty good example of that, but we've been kind of hit or miss since then. Chicago's a good opportunity to get back on track."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson