Fontana II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART West Coast Offense ATLANTA (Aug, 29, 2005) - Tony Stewart, driver of the ...

West Coast Offense

ATLANTA (Aug, 29, 2005) - Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, comes into the Sony HD 500 at California Speedway leading the championship point standings and riding a 10-race streak of top-10 finishes.

The 2002 series champion brings his summer hot streak to the West Coast, as Stewart has won five of the last nine races and climbed from 10th in points to first in the last three months. Not even a crash in practice before Saturday night's race at Bristol (Tenn.) could stymie Stewart's front-running ways. Driving a backup #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, Stewart motored through the field to pick up 11 positions in the last 30 laps to notch a solid eighth-place result.

California marks another potentially successful venue, as the 2-mile D-shaped oval mimics other race tracks where Stewart has logged strong finishes of late. At Michigan - sister track to California - Stewart finished second in June and fifth in August. And at Chicagoland, another race track similar in scope to California, Stewart logged a fifth-place result in July.

And while other drivers scramble to make or solidify their top-10 point standing to become eligible for the Chase for the Championship, Stewart has no such worries. His fifth-place result two weeks ago at Michigan locked him into the Chase, allowing the 24-time Nextel Cup race winner to focus on getting career win number 25.

With his run of success seeming to carry on week after week regardless of circumstance, California could become another victorious venue for Stewart.

With the Chase for the Championship almost upon us, how will you approach it?

"I'll tell you the same thing we told everybody from day one. We take each race one at a time. We just try to get the most amount of points and the best finish we can get each week. If you win races, the points take care of itself. You just go out and take it one week at a time. You don't worry about what's going to happen the next week. You don't worry about what happened the week before. You do the best you can. When you leave the track you look at the point sheet. You know where you're at. You can't really plan ahead. As race car drivers and as race teams, our job is to go out and do the best we can each week. With that attitude in mind, that's how we've done what we've done in the Cup Series. We've stayed in the top-seven for six consecutive years."

What do you think about the Chase opening up the championship to anyone in the top-10, with the days of 200- to 300-point leads being only a memory?

"For so many years the Cup Series was about winning the title based upon what guy had the most points at the end of the year because he was the most consistent. The Chase for the Championship is just a change in time. I'm not sure it really matters what I feel about it. It is what it is. I think it can be a positive thing for our sport, but we'll just sit back and see what happens. I'm not sure if any of us like or dislike it, but we can't do anything about it. It's second year hasn't even started, so we'll just ride it out and see how it works."

Do you think some other teams and drivers who aren't solidly in the top-10, or just on the cusp of making the top-10, will change their approach at California and Richmond (Va.)?

"If you are solidly in the top-10, it will be business as usual. But if you're 11th in points and you're within 50 points of the guy in 10th and it's down to the last two races, you're going to race just like you are racing for the championship. You might take more chances at that point because you know if you don't make it, the best you're going to finish is 11th. I can see where guys who are on the bubble might race a little bit different in the last couple of races if it looks like they may not make the top-10."

Does the Chase points system favor someone like you, as you've traditionally had a slow start to the season but have come on incredibly strong at the end?

"Not necessarily. If you look at our season two years ago under the old points format, we weren't even in the top-10 in points after Richmond, but we still managed to finish the year in seventh. Getting off to a slow start can get you into a deficit that 26 races won't cure. You might just need all 36 races to get into the top-10 in points. That was the case for us in 2003."

Fontana looks like a lot of the other 1.5-mile to 2-mile D-shaped ovals that the Nextel Cup Series visits. Is it?

"California is a lot like Michigan. I like to call it Michigan West. I'm not sure that it has the amount of banking that Michigan has, but it is a flatter track than Michigan. The way you approach the weekend is pretty much the same as far as setups on The Home Depot Chevrolet go. You just don't have the banking to help you like you do at Michigan."

What percentages would you put on a comparison between the importance of horsepower and handling at California?

"It's probably about 50/50. You need to have an aerodynamic car, but you've got to have the horsepower to pull it, too. You can't have one and not the other and expect to go to California and win the race."

California is a track where a driver can search for different grooves, as opposed to some other tracks on the circuit where there is really only one true groove. As a driver, do you appreciate that more?

"It's nice knowing that as a driver you can help yourself out and you're not relying so much on the car. Regardless of what everyone else is doing, you can find a way to help yourself out. It makes you feel good knowing that because the place is so wide, you can move around, and basically, earn your money that day."

At what point do you start to move around on the race track to find a better handle for your race car?

"As soon as you feel like you're not where you need to be. If you feel like you're slower than the pace you need to be running, you're going to move up the race track and find a place that helps balance your race car. Really, from the drop of the green flag, you do it from there on out."

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."

Track position and pit strategy seem to be the two biggest variables at California. 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 California is a track where if your car's good, then it doesn't matter whether you take two tires or four."

On Aug. 31 you'll be participating in a KaBOOM! playground build at the Pomona (Calif.) YMCA. You're also running a special paint scheme during the Sony HD 500 to help promote the build. Talk about that.

"It's a pretty cool deal. It's a partnership between The Home Depot, Joe Gibbs Racing and KaBOOM!. We've done some KaBOOM! builds in the past, and they're great because unlike an autograph session or other kinds of appearances, you know you're actually doing something. The Pomona YMCA build is the fifth of 10 playground builds we'll be doing this year, and all of them are done in a single day. All of the playgrounds are NASCAR-themed and they're all taking place in race markets. But I know that Joe (Gibbs, team owner) won't let me touch any power tools or anything with a sharp edge. So I might just be stuck shoveling gravel or something. But if my tools don't make some kind of noise or aren't capable of making mass destruction of something, I'll be a little disappointed."


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart