Chicagoland: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Sheetrock and Roll at Chicagoland ATLANTA (July 6, 2005) - NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart enters Sunday's USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., on a roll. In the past three weeks, the driver of...

TONY STEWART
Sheetrock and Roll at Chicagoland

ATLANTA (July 6, 2005) - NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart enters Sunday's USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., on a roll. In the past three weeks, the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet has risen from 10th to third in the championship point standings on the heels of a second-place result at Michigan and back-to-back wins at Sonoma (Calif.) and Daytona (Fla.).

And there is no reason to think Stewart's roll will stop at Chicagoland.

In the past three Nextel Cup races held at the 1.5-mile oval, no driver has led more laps than Stewart. The 2002 series champion has paced the field for 275 of the 801 laps available and logged three straight top-three finishes, the most recent being a win in last year's race.

Stewart also has a pole to his credit at Chicagoland, as the 21-time Nextel Cup race winner broke the track record in qualifying for the 2003 race. Jeff Gordon beat Stewart's mark in last year's time trials, but considering that Stewart is coming off a pole win at Daytona last Friday, expect him to challenge for a front row starting spot once again.

But if a pole isn't in the cards, so be it. The real prize for Stewart is Sunday's race.

The road course win at Sonoma and the restrictor plate win at Daytona has given Stewart and Co. plenty of momentum and pride as the series schedule reaches its halfway point, but the #20 Home Depot Racing Team is also smart enough to know that road courses account for just two races on the Nextel Cup schedule and restrictor plate races take just four places. The bread and butter of the Nextel Cup Series are 1.5- to 2-mile D-shaped ovals. And it's on those types of race tracks where Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing have reigned supreme in 2005.

Hendrick and Roush drivers have won all but four of the 17 races run thus far. The lone drivers who have knocked the Hendrick/Roush juggernaut of its game have been Kevin Harvick of Richard Childress Racing, Kasey Kahne of Evernham Motorsports and Stewart of Joe Gibbs Racing.

But only Stewart has been able to mount any type of serious charge against Hendrick and Roush at the 1.5- and 2-mile D-shaped ovals. Harvick's win came at the .533-mile Bristol (Tenn.) bullring, while Kahne's victory came at the .75-mile Richmond oval. And while Stewart has yet to win at an intermediate track this year, his second-place finish at Michigan was the best effort so far of any non-Hendrick or Roush team.

But being the best of the rest has never sat well with Stewart. That's why Chicagoland is such an important race for the #20 team. Will Stewart, crew chief Greg Zipadelli and the rest of The Home Depot Racing Team improve upon their runner-up finish at Michigan and do what they've never done before - win three straight races, or will they see another race at an intermediate track won by either a Hendrick or a Roush driver?

Obviously for the #20 team, it would be the former over the latter.

With the way the Hendrick and Roush teams have been running the table this year, did your wins at Sonoma and Daytona bring a bit of relief to your race team?

"It's great to have two wins like that. I don't want to downplay that by any means. But we're back to the real world this week. There's only six of those types of races with two road courses and four superspeedways. We spend a lot more time on mile-and-a-half and 2-mile tracks. This weekend is going to be a huge weekend for us. It was awesome to have the weekend we had at Daytona, but if we can have a top-five finish and get into that mix of Roush and Hendrick cars, it's going to be a very huge weekend for us - even if we don't win."

You were the winner last year at Chicagoland. Can you repeat?

"I'm not sure. Obviously, this year it's a different challenge than the last couple of years. You've got the Roush teams and the Hendrick teams that are heads above everybody else in the mile-and-a-half to 2-mile programs, so we're hoping Chicagoland is a place where some of the stuff we learned at Michigan will help us out. We'll just have to wait and see this weekend."

Momentum is always a word that is used in this sport. With two wins in a row, you have it right now. But does what you did on a road course and a restrictor plate track carry any weight at Chicagoland?

"We hope so. We've got momentum on our side and momentum goes a long way in this series. It's definitely momentum that we need, but we're realists too. Granted, one of 'em was a road course, which we only have two of those a year, and the other one was on a superspeedway, which we have only four of those a year. We had a good weekend."

"But probably the most substantial weekend was running second at Michigan, believe it or not. It's probably more substantial than winning the last two weeks. This weekend is going to tell us a lot if we're actually making the gains or not. I felt like we took a huge step forward at Michigan. If we can have a good run this weekend at Chicago, I think it's really going to give the team a huge, huge boost. Obviously, the morale of the team is real high right now with the last two weeks. But at the same time, if we can go out and have a good weekend at Chicago - that's a scenario where Roush and Hendrick teams have dominated so far - if we could be the third team to get into the mix this weekend, it would help us out a bunch."

"We've had three great weeks even with running second at Michigan. We just have to keep building on that momentum and hope we don't have any disasters in the next nine weeks so that we can stay up there in the points and try to win a championship."

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."

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."

-jgr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Kasey Kahne
Teams Richard Childress Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing