Chicagoland: Tony Stewart preview

Time to go at Chicago ATLANTA (July 8, 2003) - The NASCAR Winston 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...

Time to go at Chicago

ATLANTA (July 8, 2003) - The NASCAR Winston 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. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The first half of 2003 has been a roller-coaster ride for reigning Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart, who has been as high as second in points and as low as 20th. Coming into Chicagoland, Stewart is 11th in points, 49 markers arrears 10th place Sterling Marlin. A more daunting 602 points separates Stewart from series leader Matt Kenseth, but with another 18 races left on the docket following the tour's stop at Chicagoland, anything is possible.

Compared to other racing series, the second half of the Winston Cup season is practically a season in itself. The IRL IndyCar Series has just 16 total races this year - same for Formula 1. CART has 19 races, while the SCCA Trans Am Series and the American LeMans Series have 19 races combined.

Much can happen in 18 races, a fact made clear by Stewart last season, when The Home Depot driver went from seventh in points to first during the second half of the season to clinch his first NASCAR championship. Whether another championship is in reach for Stewart and Company is a point that can be debated. But one thing is for sure, a total of 3,330 points is available to any one driver during the second half of the season. Needless to say, the race is on - for another four months.

As we come into the mid-point of the season, what's your outlook for the second half of the year?

"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 have four DNFs (Did Not Finish) already this year, so we need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way."

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 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."

How much of a factor does fuel mileage play at Chicagoland, and what do you do to conserve fuel?

"Absolutely nothing. I'm not in charge of the Home Depot Racing Team's fuel mileage department. I'm in the driving department. Really, it's the engine tuners who work really hard during the weekend to try to get us the best fuel mileage."

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."

Your World of Outlaws driver, Danny Lasoski, is in his second season of IROC. How's he enjoying the series? Has he made another personalized IROC T-shirt yet?

"I don't think he's made another T-shirt, but he really enjoys the series. You've got to keep in mind that Danny hasn't raced anything but sprint cars, and they've all been on dirt. He's done it for so long, and done it well, that he's really proud of the fact that he earned the right to become a driver in the IROC series. He's really taken a lot of pride in the fact that he earned his way there."

Will the drafting experience Lasoski learned at Daytona and Talladega (Ala.) help him in any way at Chicagoland?

"With the IROC cars the draft plays a role everywhere they go. He definitely has a base of information from Daytona and Talladega that he'll be able to take to all of the tracks this year, but for him it's just a matter of going out and logging laps. That's something he's not scared to do, and he enjoys doing it whenever he runs the IROC car. I think he'll be just fine out there. He just needs some laps."

How is the Outlaw team doing as they reach the mid-point of their season?

"I'm very pleased with what the team is doing. They've gone out and won races, and when they're not winning, it seems like they're right there, finishing second or third, every time they run. You can't ask for much more than that. It's like I've always told them, if you win races, the points will take care of themselves. They've been really consistent this year, and in my opinion, they're doing everything right. They're doing everything that we've asked them to do, and they have the right mindset to go out and win another championship."

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

Chicagoland and 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've kind of struggled at the mile-and-a-half ovals, but it seems that this year we've kind of progressed a lot. California and Michigan were pretty good examples of that, even if our results weren't exactly what we were looking for."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Sterling Marlin , Danny Lasoski