TONY STEWART Dover Do-over ATLANTA (Sept. 19, 2006) - Tony Stewart's last visit to Dover (Del.) International Speedway was a lot like being stranded in an airport - nothing was comfortable, and your mode of transportation was inaccessible. The...
ATLANTA (Sept. 19, 2006) - Tony Stewart's last visit to Dover (Del.) International Speedway was a lot like being stranded in an airport - nothing was comfortable, and your mode of transportation was inaccessible.
The two-time and reigning NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion came to Dover in June with a non-displaced fracture at the tip of his right scapula. Back-to-back crashes the week earlier in the NASCAR Busch Series and Nextel Cup races at Charlotte (N.C.) were the culprit. The injury didn't require surgery. The only remedy was rest and time.
Neither is available at Dover. Nicknamed the "Monster Mile," Dover can chew up and spit out green rookies and savvy veterans alike. It's indiscriminate, with its 24 degrees of banking and bumpy, concrete surface making Dover one of the more physically demanding tracks on the series' 36-race schedule.
As a result, Stewart had to stand on the sideline for much of the Dover race weekend while veteran NASCAR driver Ricky Rudd piloted Stewart's familiar orange and black No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet. Stewart made only a handful of practice laps, as it was Rudd who qualified the No. 20 and then dialed it in for 400 laps at Dover.
To earn the points for whatever finish Rudd would post, Stewart started the race, and under the first caution period on lap 38, ceded the wheel to Rudd. Considering the circumstances, the 25th place result was a respectable one.
Three months later with the series set to return to Dover for Sunday's 400-miler, Stewart is 100 percent healthy and 100 percent determined.
For the first time in his eight-year Nextel Cup career, Stewart will not finish among the top-10 in points. He missed the Chase for the Championship by a scant 16 points following the cutoff race Sept. 9 at Richmond (Va.). While disappointed with not being a part of the 10-driver, 10-race Chase for the Championship, Stewart has turned that disappointment into steely determination.
If a championship can't be won, races can.
Stewart's win-or-bust attitude was on display last Sunday at New Hampshire. There, he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli gambled that four new tires would be better than two for the final, 30-lap sprint to the finish. Their thought proved correct, as Stewart piloted the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet from eighth to second, .777 of a second behind race winner Kevin Harvick.
Dover should be another good track for Stewart. The Indiana native has an average finish of seventh at the 1-mile oval, complemented by two wins, nine top-fives, a sixth, a seventh and a total of 1,066 laps led in 15 career starts.
While the Chase for the Championship continues at Dover, Stewart's chase for the checkered flag continues as well.
Since you didn't get a chance to make many laps at Dover back in the spring, are you looking forward to going back to Dover for the fall race 100 percent healthy?
"That was one of the hardest days of my life - having to watch my car go around the race track without me in it. I'm really looking forward to going back. We've typically run well at Dover, and I feel like it's a great opportunity for us to go back and try to get a win."
Are you looking at these last nine races one at a time, or are you taking a bigger picture approach and using these nine races to build toward next year?
"It's a week to week deal right now. Our goal is just to go out and try to win the race each week, just like it's always been. Our focus hasn't changed. Our goals haven't changed."
When two other high-profile teams - the No. 8 and the No. 24 - failed to make the Chase last year, they made some personnel changes as a way to get a head start on the next season. But in its eight years of existence, the No. 20 team has always had very little employee turnover. Do you expect the team to stay intact, as it's pretty much the same outfit that delivered a championship in 2002 and 2005?
"It's not the people that are keeping us from winning races. It's just circumstances. I don't see any changes, as far as personnel goes. I think everybody is doing a good job of working on the car. It's just a matter of getting our cars just a little bit better and having a lot more luck on our side. You can't do anything when you have accidents and mechanical failures that are out of your control. You can change all the people you want, but that part of the sport isn't ever going to change."
How tough is it to race around the top-10 drivers competing for the championship?
"It's the first time we've been in this situation - being on the outside of the Chase. It's very uncomfortable to race around the guys who are running for a championship. You're so scared to make a mistake around them and cause them a problem - like what happened to Jimmie Johnson at New Hampshire. You can't race like you would normally race. It's a very frustrating situation. There seems to be a lot less give-and-take than normal, and that makes it even more frustrating. It is what it is. I think the idea of having a Chase is an awesome deal, but being on both sides of it now, I think it's a very weird deal. It makes it very uncomfortable for the other 33 guys that have to race around those 10 guys that are on the race track racing for a championship. It's a lot more fun being in the top-10 than it is being on the outside of the top-10 and trying to race for wins and having to worry about those guys at the same time."
Have you changed the way you race the drivers who are competing for the championship?
"When you're up there racing with those guys, it makes you timid and it makes you think, 'Well, should I just let them go, or should I just go ahead and race my race?' I know the consideration I got last year from guys and how much I appreciated it. Instead of just saying you want to race your own race, you say maybe you should give this guy an extra break here and there. It makes it frustrating to race because you aren't racing your own race that way. You're racing a race in a race, so to speak.
"You just have to show them respect. You still want to win races, but at the same time, you still have to be mindful that there are 10 guys racing for a series championship. You try to race hard, but at the same time, you have to be respectful and give them the room they deserve."
Now that you've seen both sides of the Chase, do you think there should be a separate point system for those competing in the Chase?
"I am in favor of it. I think that if you have 10 guys racing each other, they should have their own deal. You know if you get in between two Chase drivers that you cost them five points. It shouldn't be that way.
"The Chase is exciting. There is nothing wrong with it. It just puts some of us drivers in some awkward positions."
With back-to-back wins and the championship point lead, Kevin Harvick and his team seem to be on quite a roll, similar to the kind of roll you and the No. 20 team were on last year when you won five races in seven weeks. What is that like?
"When we had that last year, we went to the race track with our head up high each week. He's in the perfect situation right now as a driver - win the race before the Chase and win the first race of the Chase. That team is on an emotional high and that carries some weight. It relaxes the team. They don't feel like they have to go out and make something happen. They feel like everything is going their way. And when it seems like things are going your way, you just kind of go to the track with a smile on your face and you go through the motions. It's not that they're not working hard, but they're not pressuring themselves to try to make something happen. So they're not making mistakes. When you try to make something happen, that's when you make mistakes."
How intimidating can Dover be for a young driver?
"With it being as bumpy as it is, it can be tough for some of the guys when they first get there. But nowadays with everybody's cars being so good, it makes it pretty easy on everybody as far as learning the track and being comfortable there."
Dover has been dubbed the "Monster Mile." How aggressive are you at a track with a moniker that exemplifies its difficult nature?
"I like to be aggressive at Dover. It's one of my better tracks and I feel like we run really, really well there. It's a track where Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) and I feel like we have a really good package that works pretty well for us. It allows me to be aggressive to where I can go out and lead a lot of laps and put pressure on the leaders when I'm not out front."
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."