Chicagoland: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Channeling the Blues Brothers in Joliet ATLANTA (July 8, 2008) -- Jake and Elwood Blues, better known as the Blues Brothers, broke out of Joliet, Ill., in the summer of 1979 and led Chicago police on an inner-city chase that ended...

Channeling the Blues Brothers in Joliet

ATLANTA (July 8, 2008) -- Jake and Elwood Blues, better known as the Blues Brothers, broke out of Joliet, Ill., in the summer of 1979 and led Chicago police on an inner-city chase that ended with a siege on the Daly Plaza in downtown.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, will look to channel the Blues Brothers as he uses Joliet's Chicagoland Speedway as his breakout venue to seize the checkered flag for the first time this year in Saturday night's 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

Stewart's No. 20 Toyota Camry is a marked improvement over Jake and Elwood's 1974 Dodge Monaco. Despite Elwood's boasting that his car had, $B!H!D(Ja cop motor, a 440 cubic inch plant. It's got cop tires, cop suspensions, cop shocks. It's a model made before catalytic converters, so it'll run good on regular gas," Stewart's Home Depot Toyota puts out over 800 horsepower and hits 200-plus mph.

The two-time Sprint Cup champion has put that power to the pavement numerous times at Chicagoland, winning the pole in 2003 and the race in 2004 and 2007. In fact, Stewart has led the most laps at Chicagoland, as he's paced the field for 384 laps, 91 more laps than second-best Matt Kenseth and 102 more laps than third-best Kevin Harvick -- winner of the first two Sprint Cup races held at Chicagoland (2001 and 2002).

Stewart enjoyed a string of top-five finishes at Chicagoland until 2006, where he was slated to notch his fifth straight top-five finish. Stewart was running third with less than four laps to go when he ran out fuel, relegating him to a 32nd-place finish. Stewart finished fifth in the 2005 race, won the 2004 race, finished second in 2003 and finished third in 2002. In those four races Stewart led a total of 275 laps, or 25.7 percent of the 1,068 laps available. He bounced back nicely from his 2006 misfortune in last year's visit to Chicagoland, as he led six times for a race-high 106 laps, including the final 36, to score his first win of 2007.

That win led to two others -- the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Centurion Boats at The Glen at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road course -- which gave Stewart three victories in the span of four races.

And just as Chicagoland served as a springboard to Stewart's 2007 season, he's looking for similar results in 2008. Stuck on career win No. 32 since winning at Watkins Glen last August -- a span of 32 races -- Stewart and Co. are intent on getting win No. 33 and their first of the season.

With Saturday night's 400 Stewart's next opportunity to score that much-desired win, expect Chicagoland's victory lane to be eyed by the orange-and-black attack the same way the Chicago police department eyed the back of Jake and Elwood's Dodge Monaco.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:

After a couple of disappointing races, are you looking forward to going to Chicagoland?

"We'll see what happens. We always seem to run well at Chicago. We're cautiously optimistic that we're going to run well. We need a good week, that's for sure. The good thing is that the morale of the team is up. This team has battled adversity so many times that it takes a lot to beat this team down."

A lot is being made out of the fact that you haven't won yet this year. Is it as big of a deal as it seems?

"It's not like we're not running well, because we are. We've just had some circumstances that haven't gone our way. You'll have that. We tend to be a late-blooming team anyhow. We plan on doing the same thing we do every week. We're not changing our approach. Every week our goal is to win the race, and that's not going to change. That's how we've won two championships. If we go out and win the race, the points take care of themselves. It's always been that way, and it always will be that way. We'll try to go out and win the race each weekend, and at the end of the day we'll look at the point standings and see where we're at. If we don't win, we'll try to get as many points as possible."

Does the Chase format make a season like the one you're having less stressful, because even if you have a few bad races, as long as you're in the top-12 in points and you win at the right time, it all works out, right?

"The first 26 races are really relevant except for how many wins you've got. That's the only thing that those first 26 weeks count for and that's getting you the bonus points. Other than that, as long as you're in the top-12, it doesn't matter whether you're first or 12th. As long as you're in there, that's what it takes to get you in the show. And then you need to be good from there. But it's not a life or death situation if you have a bad day as long as after 26 races you're in that top-12 group. If you have one bad race and it puts you 16 points out like it did us back in 2006, then it is bad. It just depends on each individual team's scenario. But we're not sending the space shuttle to outer space with this format. It's pretty easy to figure out. Twelve guys get in and they have the same amount of points and the guys that won races gets 10 extra bonus points for every race they won. It's easy to do the math. It's easy for everybody to follow."

Despite having a limited amount of practice time at Chicagoland in 2004 and 2005, as you endured crashes in practice during both years, you've performed very well, as a win in 2004 and a fifth-place finish in 2005 indicate. Is Chicagoland a venue where you don't need a lot of practice, or is it just a matter of the team being so prepared that it doesn't matter whether you start the race with your primary or backup race car?

"You don't necessarily need all the practice time, it's just a matter of fine-tuning your car to get it driving the way you want it to there. I'd rather take a chance on not having a guarantee to win the race versus crashing and knowing I can win the race. It's back to the cookie-cutter mile-and-a-halves, and the guys that are good on those mile-and-a-half tracks are good at Chicagoland because the package is pretty similar wherever you go."

With two wins, three top-twos, four top-threes, five top-10s and the most laps led of any other Sprint Cup driver at Chicagoland, you have a pretty good track record. How comfortable are you at Chicagoland?

"I think we've always been good here. You look at the past and we've had some weird events. On Fridays we've had two events where we've crashed in practice. The first time Hermie Sadler blew a motor and before the caution came out we crashed in his oil and went to the hospital and I missed the rest of the day. And then the very next year we blew a tire in practice and J.J. Yeley had to qualify for us. It's one of those places where as long as we get through Friday, we feel like we've got a shot at it. But I don't watch the stats very much. You just take it week to week. Technology in this sport changes so fast. What was good the last time you were here doesn't mean it's going to be good the second time around. So you constantly have to work. You've got to keep pushing the envelope. It's a place I like. This place is really getting racy as far a s finally being able to move around and change lines and run anywhere from the bottom to the top. It's a fun track because of that."

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. I call them sister tracks because with the exception of the bow in the backstretch at Chicagoland, they're identical race tracks. Both of them, it seems like the last couple years in particular, have come around. They've seasoned, and it's gotten to where we finally got off the bottom and move around the race track more. That's what you want as a driver. That's what teams want. You don't want to be stuck following guys and not being able to move around and pass. It just makes you confident that at least you've got options when you go in the corner. You can go and help yourself out as a driver, kind of like what we talk about at Michigan about being able to move around on the track. It makes this place a lot more fun when you're able to move around. The first couple of times that we came here, we all dreaded it because it was just single-file racing, and all you heard us talk about was aero push. Now you can't really use the aero push excuse too much because you have the ability to move around on the race track more."

Can you pretty much pass wherever you want at Chicagoland?

"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, the groove is so wide that you have plenty of 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."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Hermie Sadler , J.J. Yeley