TONY STEWART Lookin' for a Three-Peat ATLANTA (July 2, 2007) -- Tony Stewart joined some elite company last July when he scored his second consecutive win in the Pepsi 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Daytona (Fla.) International ...
Lookin' for a Three-Peat
ATLANTA (July 2, 2007) -- Tony Stewart joined some elite company last July when he scored his second consecutive win in the Pepsi 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
After leading a race-high 86 laps in last year's Pepsi 400 and all but nine of the 160 laps in the 2005 Pepsi 400 to score his only two restrictor plate wins in Nextel Cup, the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing joined David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and his racing idol A.J. Foyt as the only drivers to win back-to-back 400-mile races at Daytona in July.
And as Stewart and Co. prepare to defend their race victory in this year's Pepsi 400, a potential three-peat would put them in a category reached only once before. Pearson scored three straight wins in what was then known as the Firecracker 400 in 1972, 1973 and 1974 behind the wheel of a Wood Brothers-prepared Mercury.
In what will be the last restrictor plate race for the older generation Chevrolet Monte Carlo before the Chevy Impala Car of Tomorrow makes its restrictor plate debut at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in October, the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team will roll out a soon-to-be extinct dinosaur in one last gasp at Daytona.
Chassis No. 119 -- the car that carried Stewart to victory at Daytona earlier this year when he won the non-points-paying Budweiser Shootout -- will be the mount Stewart will use in the Pepsi 400. The car Stewart used in his dominating performances in past Pepsi 400s -- Chassis No. 70 -- is no more after a lap-153 crash while leading this year's Daytona 500 rendered it obsolete.
But since all of the older generation cars designed for restrictor plate racing are obsolete after Saturday night's 400-miler, the loss of Chassis No. 70 was little cause for concern. After all, its fill-in -- Chassis No. 119 -- acquitted itself well with its Budweiser Shootout win. And the one constant with each chassis is the men who built it and the man who drives it.
Those who have worked on the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet since the team's debut in the 1999 Daytona 500 has remained relatively unchanged, just as the driver/crew chief combo has been intact. Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli have the longest active driver/crew chief relationship in the Nextel Cup garage, and together they've secured two championships and 29 point-paying victories.
The duo is hungry for career win No. 30, and with a shot at a three-peat in the Pepsi 400, they're looking for some champagne to compliment the dinner reservation they've made for 11 p.m. on Saturday in Daytona's ultra-exclusive victory lane.
How difficult is it to win one race at Daytona, never mind two in a row?
"The restrictor plate races at Daytona are always a wild card race. You never know who's going to win. We were fortunate enough to win two years ago and last year we were able to back it up. To do it back-to-back like that is something we're really proud of."
Knowing how well you ran in the Daytona 500 this year (led twice for 35 laps), does that give you even more confidence to do something extremely rare -- win three Pepsi 400s in a row?
"Yes, to a certain degree. The car that we're going to run the 400 this time is the same car that we won the Shootout with. It's already a proven winner at Daytona. It does give me confidence. We feel that our cars are better at Daytona in July than they actually are in February because the track is so much hotter and slicker. We seem to be able to find a balance that our car really likes. So yes, we have a lot of confidence that we can go back and win again."
Is Daytona drastically different in July than it is in February? Does it become even more of a handling race track?
"Yes. Absolutely. It's probably five times more of a handling race track in July than it is in February because of the heat. Even though it might cool off a little bit at night, there's so much heat in the race track that it just stays there and soaks in the asphalt."
For someone who appreciates the history of the sport, would it mean something to be the winner of the last restrictor plate race with the old generation of car before we go to the Car of Tomorrow full time?
"It really doesn't matter. You're still racing with the same group of guys. The goal every week is to beat the guys that you're there racing with. It doesn't matter what type of car it is. You just want to win."
In order to win a restrictor plate race, you've got to have drafting help. How do you get that help? Is it something you develop over time?
"I think it's more a situation of guys finding the fast cars, and you finding the guys that you know are going to go with you because they know you're quick. If they go with you, they're going to get you to the front, which is going to get them to the front. It's kind of 'help me, help you.'"
How important is it to be part of a multi-car organization at a track like Daytona, where you have two teammates to draft with and you have an extra set of notes?
"It definitely helps, but it doesn't always work out that way. You've still got 40 other guys out there that are trying to get in between you and break your cars up. It doesn't always work out the way you want it to."
Are there certain guys you've worked with at restrictor plate races in the past that you know you're going to draft with in each restrictor plate race?
"You have a list of guys that you know you're drafting with, and then there's another list of guys that you're all right with, and there's another list of guys that you don't want to be around. So you always know who the guys are you want to be with and who you'd rather not see anywhere near you."
You'll be competing in the NASCAR Busch Series race for Joe Gibbs Racing on Friday night. How much does running the Busch Series race help with the Nextel Cup race on Saturday night?
"It doesn't. Those cars drive so differently from each other because the rules packages for the two series are so different. The packages are so different that it really doesn't equate. You can talk between the Busch team and the Cup team about what changes you made to the car and why you made them, but the set-ups don't exactly match up."
Is there any strategy involved in running a restrictor plate race, or is it just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented?
"The strategy is making sure you've got somebody you can draft with. You have to take the opportunities as they come, but with those opportunities you have to make a very quick decision. You've got to think, 'What happens if I try this and it doesn't work? What are the ramifications going to be?' You don't have the luxury of sitting down and taking the time to analyze the situation. You've got to make a split-second decision. A lot of times it'll work, but there are times when the decision that you made doesn't work. But once you've committed yourself to doing something, there's not much you can do about it."
Patience is an obvious virtue on the short tracks, but how important is it at a restrictor plate track?
"It's the gospel, basically. There are a lot of times when you think you can pull out and pass, but if you do, once you get there you realize that you can't pass. It makes it real critical that you take your time and that you don't get caught up in trying to make a move too fast. Just stay in line, and sometimes you'll have more patience than 20 other guys.
"It's such a chess match. You can be leading the race one second and you can be fifth the next second. I think it's just a matter of timing and getting yourself in the right place at the right time."
Is a fast car all you need to be successful in restrictor plate races?
"You have to have a fast car. But with that fast car, you've got to have a good team that gets you in and out of the pits fast, and you've got to have a driver who knows what he's doing. Get all that together, along with a little bit of luck, and you can have a good day."