TONY STEWART The Same, But Different ATLANTA (Sept. 20, 2005) - With 27 races down and nine to go in the 2005 edition of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, Tony Stewart is doing all he can to secure a second NASCAR title. The 2002 series champion...
The Same, But Different
ATLANTA (Sept. 20, 2005) - With 27 races down and nine to go in the 2005 edition of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, Tony Stewart is doing all he can to secure a second NASCAR title.
The 2002 series champion and driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing sits atop the series points standing for a seventh straight week, despite his commanding 206-point lead being knocked down to just five points following the Sept. 10 race at Richmond. There, the top-10 in the Nextel Cup standings had their point tallies recalibrated so that they were within five points of one another as they set off for the playoff-style Chase for the Championship.
Last Sunday's race at New Hampshire was round one in the 10-race title chase, where Stewart led six times for a race high 173 laps before finishing second and earning just five fewer points than race victor and fellow Chase participant Ryan Newman. The strong run extended Stewart's point lead to 20 over second-place Greg Biffle, a far cry from Stewart's opening performance in last year's Chase for the Championship at New Hampshire.
In 2004 - the inaugural Chase season - Stewart was taken out of the New Hampshire race in an accident not of his making, completing just 83 of the 300 laps before finishing a distant 39th. The disappointing result dropped Stewart to eighth in points, 124 markers arrears then series leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.
And while this year's Chase format is the same as it was last year, Stewart is in a much different position entering the second race in the Chase - Sunday's MBNA NASCAR RacePoints 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.
The 24-time Nextel Cup race winner comes into the high-banked, 1-mile oval riding a 13-race streak of top-10 finishes. In fact, Stewart has finished within the top-five in 10 of those races, with the three finishes outside of the top-five being seventh-place results at Pocono (Pa.) and Richmond, and an eighth-place finish at Bristol (Tenn.). Thanks to five wins during that span, Stewart's average finish is third.
Don't expect Stewart's hot streak to cool on Dover's concrete surface.
In 13 career Nextel Cup starts at the aptly named "Monster Mile," Stewart has two wins, nine top-fives, a sixth and a seventh. He has only two finishes outside of the top-10 - an 11th place result in June 2002 and a 15th place effort this past June - to give him an average finish of fifth. And of the 5,200 possible laps available at Dover in those 13 career starts, 1,066 of those laps have been led by Stewart (20.5 percent).
While this year's race to the Chase remains the same, Stewart knows that Chase version 2.0 is different. He's the leader this time around, and with another strong run at Dover, he aims to keep it that way.
Your track record at Dover is excellent. And after last week's strong run at New Hampshire, are you glad Dover is next on the schedule so that you can keep that momentum going?
"We've looked at the schedule and said, 'Okay, these are tracks where we've had success in the past.' It definitely makes you feel better, but at the same time, every week is a different week and you've got to take it one week at a time. You never know what's going to happen. There are always variables that are out of your control each week. Even though we've had some success in the past at some of these places, it's no guarantee that we're going to have success this time around."
What were some of the things you learned from being in the Chase last year that you'll apply this year?
"My approach really isn't that much different. Last year, our Chase pretty much ended sixty-something laps into the first race at Loudon (N.H.). We got involved in a wreck that wasn't of our doing. At the same time, the outcome put us in a huge, huge deficit. And to be honest, we just really weren't in a position last year where we were on top of our game when the Chase started. It was more just survival than anything. This year it's a different story. We're as prepared as I feel like we can be right now. The team had the luxury of knowing that we were locked into the Chase three weeks before it even started. We didn't have to worry about points. We could've skipped the whole weekend at Richmond and not lost the point lead. It gave the team the opportunity to take some time and think about the cars that we're going to be taking to the last 10 races and preparing for some of the test sessions we have left. It's given us a little bit of luxury to work on that side of our program. But my approach to the Chase is the same way it's been any other time I've been in a point race - you go out there, you lead laps, you win races and the points take care of itself. I know that sounds like a simple formula, but the reason we got to this point is by following that theory. Every week we go out and we try to lead laps and we try to win races. That's what got us the point lead. There's no reason to change that. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel."
How do you compete against nine guys for a championship while still competing with 42 guys for a race win?
"For the 10 that are competing, we're still racing against 33 other guys just like we've been since the beginning of the year. Probably for the first three or four weeks, I don't think we'll be too conscious of where we are on the race track. It's still going to be business as usual. But as we get closer to the end of the season - probably with two or three races to go - you're going to be singling out guys a little bit more and paying closer attention to where they are on the race track, what position they're in, and how many laps they've led. The further we get into it the more the points are going to separate the field, and you're going to see exactly who you're racing against for the championship. There probably won't be 10 guys with two or three races left. It'll be down to four or five guys who have a shot at it."
Do you see more aggressive driving during the Chase?
"Well, you still have 43 drivers who want to win races. The guys who are outside of that top-10, they still have sponsors to impress, programs to get on track, and for some, jobs to earn. Other guys just have something to prove. A guy like Jeff Gordon, missing the Chase is not something that sits well with him. He's won four championships. He's a championship-caliber driver. He's got a championship-caliber team. He's not going to be content to just sit there and ride the rest of the season out. He's going to want to prove to everybody that he's a champion and that even though he missed the Chase, he's not going to sit on his past success and ride out the rest of the year. He and his team are going to try and get themselves on track for next year. But I don't think there's more or less aggressiveness on the race track. It's always been aggressive."
Much is being made about Roush Racing having all five of its teams in the Chase. Is it that big of a deal?
"I feel like the Roush teams are racing me. We're the ones leading the points. I don't care if Roush has nine cars in the top-10. Whoever is in the top-10 is who we have to race. Even though Roush has all five of its cars in the top-10, if you look at the season, not all five of those guys have been hot at the same time. They all don't drive the same. They all probably like a different feel in their race car. Even though they're sharing information back and forth, it's no guarantee that it's going to help all of them at the same time."
What are the differences and similarities between this season and your championship season in 2002?
"There are no similarities whatsoever. This is probably the most fun I've had since I've been in Cup. Even as bad as we started the season performance-wise, we were having fun doing it. We made the commitment to each other that we didn't get into racing to be miserable, we got into racing because we liked it. We went back to doing this for the reasons we got started in the first place. We've just been having fun all year. We haven't put pressure on ourselves. When things were bad we knew there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. We didn't let it get us down. And then when the success started, it was like a giant snowball going downhill. Once we got started, you couldn't stop us. We're just relaxed. Performance-wise and attitude-wise, I really feel like we're 10 times better than we were in 2002."
Dover's surface is concrete. Do you have to alter your driving style when you race on concrete?
"I don't think you drive it any differently. But because it is concrete the track has a lot more bumps than an asphalt track would. There are seams in Dover's surface and places where they've cut the concrete for expansion. Those sections shift and change, and every year when you go there the bumps are a little bit different than they were the year before. Dover is a track that's constantly changing. But it's one of those places where you really can't change your driving style. You still have to do the same things you always do. It's just a matter of finding the package that's right for that race track. But other than that, you go through the same set of scenarios and challenges you would on any asphalt track - either the car is going to be tight or it's going to be loose."
How much of a role does aerodynamics play at Dover in comparison to handling?
"Both are important. Air is free, so if your aero program gives you a lot of downforce, that's great. But at the same time, with all the bumps Dover has, you have to work on the mechanical balance too. It's a track that requires every aspect of your racing program for you to be on the money."
Is Dover the type of race track where a driver can make up for a race car that isn't handling well or an engine that's down on horsepower?
"I think so. With the way the cars slide around on the race track late in the day, there are times when a driver can make up for what the car won't do. They can move around on the race track and help themselves out by finding a faster groove."