Daytona 500: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Brave New World DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 8, 2008) -- Two championships. Thirty-two wins. Ten poles. One hundred and nineteen top-five finishes. One hundred and ninety-one top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony...

TONY STEWART
Brave New World

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 8, 2008) -- Two championships. Thirty-two wins. Ten poles. One hundred and nineteen top-five finishes. One hundred and ninety-one top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Team have accumulated in their nine years together in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

But despite the impressive figures, the most pressing matter of the moment is readying for the 2008 Sprint Cup season. The wins, the poles and the accolades of year's past don't mean much when another grueling, 36-race schedule looms ahead. For all intents and purposes, it's just another series of never-ending performance reviews.

In 2008, those performance reviews will be watched in earnest. Not just because it's Stewart who is the pick of many to dethrone Hendrick Motorsports and its two-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, but because Stewart's drive for a third Cup title will come from behind the wheel of a Toyota Camry.

Stewart's signature orange and black No. 20 Home Depot machine rumbles on just as it did when it first hit the track at Daytona International Speedway in 1999. But instead of it being a Pontiac, as it was during that rookie year in 1999 and when Stewart won his first championship in 2002, or the Chevrolet Stewart used to secure his second title in 2005, it will be a Toyota in 2008.

Joe Gibbs Racing made the manufacturer switch at the conclusion of the 2007 racing season, and in test sessions at Daytona, Las Vegas and California prior to the start of the 2008 campaign, Stewart's No. 20 Toyota, along with the Toyotas of his Joe Gibbs Racing brethren -- Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch -- have proven fast.

But quickness in testing and quickness in actual competition are two very different matters.

For Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli -- who together make up the longest active driver/crew chief relationship in the Sprint Cup garage -- they are eagerly anticipating their 10th year together. Collectively, they've won at least two races in each of their nine years and have an average point finish of fifth.

Having won races and championships with two manufacturers in a sport where you simultaneously outrun your competition while chasing technology, Stewart and Co. seek a third title via their third manufacturer.

NASCAR 2008 is a brave new world, but Stewart and Zipadelli are up for the challenge.

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

There's a lot of hoopla surrounding the 50th running of the Daytona 500. Would winning this year's race make it extra special?

"It would mean the same to me as it would've meant to win the 49th edition last year. It doesn't matter what year it is, it's just special to win the Daytona 500. Its list of winners is a who's who of racing. The best drivers have won the Daytona 500. When you win the Daytona 500, you win the biggest stock car race in history.

"If you just win one of those it's special. Obviously, this year is a big anniversary year, but you don't change your emphasis going into it. You don't change the preparation for it. You still go out and do the same things you did 13 years ago for it. If there's ever a cool year to get your first one, this is it, but that's an obvious answer."

Do you like competing at Daytona?

"Oh yeah. Daytona is different because you actually have to get your car to handle well there, where at Talladega, everybody's car handles well. You're strictly playing a chess match. At least at Daytona, you have to have a good-handling race car. That's why I wrecked last year. I wrecked because when I got the pit road speeding penalty, I went to the back. My car was too tight when I was in the back. I had to free it up so I could get back to the front. Then when I got there, I was too free. That's how I wrecked. It puts emphasis on your aero package, your motor package and your car's handling."

This is your 10th year at the pinnacle of racing -- the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. What drives you?

"I'm here to win races. That's what I want to do every morning when I get up. All I want to do is win."

With all that goes on during Daytona Speedweeks, is it easy to lose track of what you need to do for the rest of the season?

"I think everybody is realistic about it and has done this long enough to know that Daytona is a long, grueling week-and-a-half period. But aside from that you do your work there just like we do every week. If we were told to be at each race five days a week, we'd work hard for five days a week. You just work hard for the whole duration that you're down there, and hope that you get a good result out of it on Sunday. Then you go on to the other 25 races and get ready for the Chase."

Whenever a new season begins, do you set goals?

"When I was racing Midget and Sprint cars and paying my own bills, you learned to try to win each race. If you did that, everything else seemed to take care of itself. Your goal is to stay consistent all year. That's our goal."

What will it take to win another championship?

"If I knew that we'd win the championship every year. There's no blueprint. Every year if you look back in the history of NASCAR there's never been two years that have been identical. Every year is kind of like a snowflake -- they're all different. You've just got to take the circumstances you're dealt each week and work to consistently finish in the top-five. If you can do that every week, you'll put yourself into a position to win the championship."

Do you feel there is more pressure on you to perform this year than there has in past seasons?

"This series is so competitive week in and week out that I really don't think there's any more pressure than there's always been. It's a situation where you know there are so many good, quality teams out there that you have to have the right pieces and the right equipment every week. I feel like we have the right pieces in place, and now I just have to go out there and do my job."

Was there any disappointment or frustration at the end of the last year when you finished sixth in points, or do you look back on it and think that with three wins, it was a pretty good year?

"I was disappointed at the end of the year, honestly. We started the Chase off so well. We weren't leading the points, but we were in second or third for the first couple of weeks. We were in good position to carry that momentum, but it just seemed like the spokes fell off the wheel, so to speak. We just lost track of it. We just had bad luck, and when it got bad, it got worse. We just never could carry that momentum to the end of the year. I felt disappointed with the way we ended the season. Up to 26 weeks we were second in the points, which we were proud of. But at the time we needed it the most, we didn't have it and that was disappointing.

"I think the things that we missed on, we've gotten corrected. A lot of that is just in the handling of the cars. We had a lot of testing in January, and it gave us an opportunity to hopefully get our cars halfway decent to start the season."

Hendrick Motorsports was dominant last year, and the theme of 2008 seems to be, "Who will catch Hendrick?" Do you feel you have everything you need to be as good as they've managed to be?

"I honestly feel like the one area that we're going to have to catch up with them on is just getting our cars driving better. At the beginning of the year, there were sparks of brilliance where we were really fast and couldn't close the deal, but as the season went on, I felt like we fell off the pace a bit in some of those areas with our cars. I feel like that that's the one area in particular where we're really going to have to catch up. I don't think it's the Toyota side. I think it's really the variable that didn't really change from last year, and that's having the CoT (Car of Tomorrow) car."

How much do you guys want to knock Hendrick off the block?

"We don't care about Hendrick. We just want to beat everybody. You've got to beat everybody to win it. It doesn't matter if it's Hendrick or Evernham or Roush or whoever. We're not worried about Hendrick more than we're worried about any other team. If we do our jobs, they're going to have to worry about us."

The Car of Tomorrow is now the current car. You weren't a big fan of it when it debuted last year. What are your thoughts now?

"It's the same seat that I had last year, so it pretty much feels the same so far. I don't know. The good thing is that we're at least going to be in it all year, so I think that's the comforting thing. We're not having to switch back and forth between it and the older car, and I think that makes us all feel better. You at least get some consistency from week to week with it. I think it's going to make everybody a lot happier. It's definitely going to make the teams a lot happier, for sure."

If no one had told you that the team had switched from Chevrolet to Toyota, would you have known the difference after testing the Toyota during Preseason Thunder at Daytona?

"I wouldn't have known the difference. You've got to keep in mind that you're on a two-and-a-half mile track and you're holding it wide-open. You're not going to really feel it until you get around other cars. Any driver that says they can is a heck of a lot better driver than me because I can't tell the difference. You're not talking about 20-30 horsepower gains that you're going to feel. You're only talking about a five to eight horsepower difference, and you're not going to feel that. Any driver that says he can feel that on a race track is lying to you."

Does the car move around more than the older generation car you raced at Daytona last year?

"It's probably more like an IROC (International Race of Champions) car. These cars don't have near the downforce that our cars had last year. With the limited amount of shock travel in the front, you're hitting bump rubbers, and last year we weren't allowed to have bump rubbers. It doesn't float around the race track like it used to. It's a lot harsher ride."

Did you spend any time worrying about the manufacturer change, or do you just figure you'll race with whatever you're given?

"It is what it is every week. I know it sounds real elementary and plain, but the race car is still going to do one of three things. It's going to be tight, it's going to be loose, or it's going to four-wheel drift. We're not reinventing the wheel here. We're just driving a different car. I've driven 22 different types of cars. Every one I got into the first time I've had to learn what it likes and dislikes. It's no different with this one. It's the same thing we went through half the season last year. It's not a big monumental change this year. I think last year was a bigger change than this year's going to be."

Is the manufacturer change really a bigger deal for your fans to come to terms with?

"The car looks the same from where I sit, so it is probably a bigger change for the fans. Obviously, if we go down the straightaway faster, it'll be a big deal for me sitting behind the wheel."

You've been competing at the Sprint Cup level for 10 years now. Does all of your experience help you adjust quicker to such massive changes as a switch in manufacturers?

"I think that everybody that gets to this level can handle it. I don't think it's a bigger deal having more experience. From the outside looking in, switching from Chevrolet to Toyota probably seems like a huge change. And if we had made this change a year ago, it would've been. But it's a lot less dramatic this year since the car is the same for everybody. For the most part, it's just a new motor package and some new decals on the nose."

You have a new teammate in Kyle Busch. What does he bring to Joe Gibbs Racing?

"I'm excited about it. I like Kyle. Kyle and I, our relationship together when he first started was a little rough, but even before he signed the contract, we got things smoothed out and learned how to get along well with each other. I look forward to having him. I know people think he's a little rough around the edges, but I see a lot of talent in him. I think he's going to be a great teammate. The test session that we had at Atlanta before the season was even over, working with him and talking to him and communicating with him, I really think he's going to be a strong asset to this team.

"He's learned a lot of patience. He's got a lot of qualities that are going to help this race team. Having all three cars up front every week is something that is going to make us that much stronger. Kyle is very much a team player already. He's so willing to give information and talk about what his car is doing. Having that information and having three guys that are up front, with our cars driving fairly similarly, is going to make us that much stronger of a race team. We have three guys that have very similar personalities that I think are going to mesh really well."

Of the three drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing -- you, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch -- it's you who appears to be the leader. What are your thoughts about that?

"It's a little frightening, right? The great thing about being the leader is that they can learn from my mistakes. I'm more than willing to give any information I can to keep them from having some of the problems that I've had in the past. I don't know if I feel a sense of responsibility from that standpoint, but I remember what it was like when I came in and I remember how good Bobby Labonte was to me. If I can help Denny and Kyle in that same way, then I'm more than willing to do that.

"There's no manual that tells you how to adapt to the Cup Series. When you go from the Truck Series to the (Nationwide) Series, the transition isn't huge, but when you make that last jump from (Nationwide) to Cup, it's a huge jump, so it always helps to have veterans that are willing to sit down and take time with you and help you get through some of the headaches and the hurdles that come with being a new guy."

What's it like having Joe Gibbs back from football?

"We're glad to have him back because we missed him when he went back to football in the first place. Not that we ever felt like there was a void when he left, because J.D. (Gibbs) has and continues to do a great job as president, but Joe's personality was definitely missed a lot. He has leadership qualities in him that are unmatched."

Can you talk about how J.D. expanded his role as president after Joe left and how much he grew the race team?

"I think he grew really quickly in that role. He's just a younger Joe. He laughs like Joe. His mannerisms are a lot like Joe. The way he ran the team is a lot like Joe, too. Obviously, anytime you have somebody new, they're going to have to put their signature on it a little bit. It was a little bit different than having Joe here, but at the same time, it was kind of business as usual."

You and your crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, continue to have the longest active driver/crew chief relationship in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, especially now that the combination closest to you and Zipadelli -- Matt Kenseth and Robbie Reiser -- have since parted ways with Reiser moving into a management position within Roush Fenway Racing. You and Zipadelli have hit a milestone mark at 10 years. How do you do it?

"We have the same passion and desire to win, and when you have that combination, you work really hard to protect it. I think Zippy and I are now in a position where we don't see each other doing something away from one another. If one of us decides to retire, the other one is going along with him. If he says, 'I'm done, I'm ready to do something different,' then that's probably when I'll say I'm ready to do something different too, or vice versa."

In addition to 10 years together with your crew chief, it's been 10 years together with your primary sponsor -- The Home Depot. When you made your debut at Daytona in February 1999, did you think you could make it this long?

"I just wanted to make it, let alone make it 10 years here. It makes me proud. It makes me very, very proud of both my relationship with Zippy and Home Depot. They've been a great company to work for and hopefully we go another 10 years. It's been a lot of fun. We've been through a lot of highs and a lot of lows, but at the end of the day, we've had a lot of fun and we've won a lot of races and won two championships. I think we've had a very successful first 10 years."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch
Teams Hendrick Motorsports , Roush Fenway Racing , Joe Gibbs Racing