Chicagoland: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Higher Learning KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (July 9, 2009) -- It's appropriate that the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS Tony Stewart will drive in Saturday night's 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at ...

Higher Learning

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (July 9, 2009) -- It's appropriate that the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS Tony Stewart will drive in Saturday night's 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., sports a back-to-school paint scheme. After all, Stewart's been schooling the competition in his first season as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing.

With a series-leading 10 top-fives and 14 top-10s in the 18 races run so far this season, Stewart is atop the championship point standings with a hefty 180-point margin over second-place and four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. And with two wins already this season, including last Saturday night's victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, Stewart has 20 bonus points to take with him into the final, 10-race Chase for the Championship.

It's an amazing feat, not just because Stewart has accomplished so much in such a short amount of time, but because he's done it with a new team in a new role. For 10 previous years, Stewart strolled into the Sprint Cup garage as a driver only. But now he wears the dual hat of driver/owner, and despite a long list of driver/owners who raced but were unable to race competitively -- Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Petty, Geoffrey Bodine, Lake Speed, Bill Elliott to name just a few -- Stewart has become the exception to the rule, as he's thriving in his 11th year on the Sprint Cup circuit.

And with all the success Stewart has enjoyed already this season, history says that the two-time Sprint Cup champion will continue his winning ways through the summer months and into the Chase.

Stewart has more wins in the months of July and August than any other driver on the circuit (13). Three of those wins have come in the July race at Daytona (2005, 2006 and 2009), and two others have come at Chicagoland (2004 and 2007). Coincidentally, Stewart enters Chicagoland after logging his most recent win at Daytona, and seven times in Stewart's illustrious Sprint Cup career he's scored back-to-back victories.

Could an eighth back-to-back triumph be in the offing this Saturday night in Joliet? It's certainly in the realm of possibility, for Stewart has led the most laps of any Sprint Cup driver (395) at Chicagoland while posting three top-twos, four top-threes and six top-fives in eight career starts at the 1.5-mile oval. He also has a pole to his credit at Chicagoland, as Stewart set fast time for the 2003 race.

With such a record of achievement, Stewart now views Chicagoland as an AP course. Another win would give him 10 more bonus points to start the Chase, allowing the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy advanced placement among his Chase counterparts come the Chase kick-off Sept. 20 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

With a back-to-school paint scheme at Chicagoland, Stewart seeks victory to give him his first back-to-back wins since he won at Chicagoland and Indianapolis in 2007.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice "Back-to-School" Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

With two wins, three top-twos, four top-threes, six 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 I've always been good here. You look at the past and we've had some weird events. On Fridays I've had two events where I've crashed in practice. The first time Hermie Sadler blew a motor and before the caution came out I crashed in his oil and went to the hospital and I missed the rest of the day (2004). And then the very next year I blew a tire in practice and J.J. Yeley had to qualify for me (2005). It's one of those places where as long as I get through Friday, I 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 there 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 as 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."

Since you're leading the points handily, does the Chase format allow for you to take chances, because being in the top-12 in points after Round 26 is all that really matters, correct?

"The first 26 races are relevant 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. 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."

You've started this season strong, but you've typically performed better in the second half of the season. Which do you prefer -- starting strong to have a bit of a buffer if you encounter some misfortune, or finishing strong so that you can capitalize on the Chase format?

"It doesn't really matter, because we're going to all of them anyway. How we start or finish doesn't change that fact. Historically, we've always been better the last half of the season, and last third of the season in particular. This is the best start we've ever had to a season in the Cup Series. I don't know what's different about it. I don't know what's changed. I just know that I'm happy with the performance up to this point, and we just hope that what we've done up to this point, we can have that last 10-week stretch and have a shot at winning the championship."

You're carrying a back-to-school paint scheme on your Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy this week, and on the rear decklid, it reads "Teacher's Pet." Were you ever a Teacher's Pet?

"I could schmooze some teachers in the past. There were some teachers that I couldn't get away with anything, but a couple of them, I was able to sweet-talk a lot."

Did you have a favorite teacher?

"I didn't have one particular favorite teacher. I was very fortunate to have good teachers through elementary school, junior high and high school. There weren't very many teachers that I didn't like. Looking back, you realize that they were all important. I was very fortunate. I felt like the schools I went to were just regular public schools, but we had very good teachers there, and had teachers that had a lot of personality and taught more than just what was in the books."

Did you have a favorite subject?

"I did. I liked all of my math classes. In high school, I liked physics and geometry. Those were probably the classes I liked the best. Obviously, I didn't even realize at the time why I liked them so well, but after graduating high school and moving on, you realize how much you use all of that in racing. Those three subjects were very important and still are."

What kind of a student were you in school?

"I wasn't the best student. I didn't get the best of grades, but it was because I didn't apply myself. From the time I was eight on, I wanted to be a racecar driver. I didn't understand how important school was at the time, so I didn't apply myself as well as I should have."

Did you play any sports, or was gym class your sport?

"I liked everything. I always enjoyed gym class. I liked baseball. I didn't get to play it at the high school level because of the amount of time we spent racing, but it was something I always wanted to do."

Were you voted anything like "Most Likely to Succeed" or was anything said about you in your high school yearbook?

"I slid under the radar. I was a pretty down-to-earth and low-key kid. I was so busy racing on the weekends that I didn't go out and do a lot of things with kids that I went to school with. My time on the weekends was spent racing. Everybody else was going to football and basketball games and I ended up going racing instead."

-credit: shr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Darrell Waltrip , Tony Stewart , Geoffrey Bodine , J.J. Yeley
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing