Fontana II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART What a Difference a Year Makes ATLANTA (Aug. 29, 2007) -- A year ago in Tony Stewart's visit to California Speedway in Fontana, he was eighth in the championship point standings and clinging to a spot in what used to be the ...

TONY STEWART
What a Difference a Year Makes

ATLANTA (Aug. 29, 2007) -- A year ago in Tony Stewart's visit to California Speedway in Fontana, he was eighth in the championship point standings and clinging to a spot in what used to be the 10-driver, Chase for the Nextel Cup. Despite a top-10 result by Stewart at California, a surging Kasey Kahne won the race to highlight his three top-five finishes in the last four races leading into the Chase.

Stewart's 18th-place finish in the cutoff race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway the following week created a perfect storm that denied Stewart the ability to defend his 2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship. Kahne took the 10th and final spot in the Chase, while Stewart slipped to 11th in points, 16 markers shy of the top-10.

What a difference a year makes.

Despite returning to California earlier this year for the Feb. 25 Auto Club 500 mired 40th in points, Stewart has used the 23 races since to climb to second in points and clinch a spot in the slightly tweaked for 2007 Chase for the Nextel Cup. Twelve drivers are now eligible for the Chase, but Stewart didn't need the buffer of two extra spots. Six top-10 finishes in the last six races -- three of which were wins -- vaulted Stewart from seventh to second in points and lopped 190 points off Jeff Gordon's lead. And with still two races remaining before this year's cutoff race at Richmond, Stewart is locked into the Chase, as his 512-point lead over 13th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., is insurmountable.

All that Stewart cares about now is winning, and the 10 bonus points that come with victory. With the altered setup for this year's Chase, the points for all 12 Chase drivers are reset after Richmond. Each Chase driver gets 5,000 points, but for each win the driver scored during the regular season, 10 bonus points are added to his tally. Currently, Stewart would slot in at third in points, for his three wins have given him 30 bonus points, 10 fewer than four-time race winners Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Stewart has never won at California. The 2-mile oval is one of just four tracks where the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to record a victory, with the others being Las Vegas, Darlington (S.C.) and Talladega (Ala.). However, Stewart has led a total of 213 laps at California, sixth-best among active Nextel Cup drivers. He also has six top-10 finishes in 12 career starts.

Despite not having a win at California, Stewart's Labor Day weekend visit to the track could yield a win and 10 more bonus points.

Stewart has scored four wins at tracks of similar stature to California. Michigan, Chicagoland and Kansas are all D-shaped ovals that mimic California, and Stewart has won at all of them, posting his second win at Chicagoland in July. Also boding well for Stewart at California is his traditional late-season surge, for 10 of Stewart's 32 career Nextel Cup wins have come in the last three months of the season.

Stewart will look to add to those numbers, and increase his bonus points for this year's Chase, come Sunday's Cal 500 at California Speedway.

Does being locked into the Chase provide you with a sense of relief because there is no cutoff for you to worry about?

"Oh yeah, for sure. It just lets us work on the stuff that we normally work on. We don't have to make something happen, so it definitely takes the pressure off. We'll go out and worry about winning the race versus worrying about getting into the Chase."

With the Chase for the Nextel Cup 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 themselves. 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."

What do you think about the Chase opening up the championship to anyone in the top-12?

"I think the more people they add, the more it makes you appreciate what you've done, because you have to compete against more guys. It adds a different perspective to the Chase than what it's had in the past.

"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 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's been 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. This year's version of the Chase hasn't even started, so we'll just ride it out and see how it works."

How different is the feel of the race track from when you were at California in February to now?

"It has a lot more grip in the spring because it's cooler. Now that it's hotter, it's a good bet that the track's going to be slick on race day, which is good. That's why the groove will widen out and that's why guys can move around on the race track the way they can."

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."

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."

It's been proposed that reconfiguring California Speedway would produce more exciting racing. What do you think?

"They need to let the race track be. You can change all the banking you want. It's still a 2-mile track. The good thing is that the racing has become two- and three-wide and you can run on different spots on the race track. But that's all you can hope for. It is what it is there. If they wanted to do something, they should've been a little smarter and built a half-mile or three-quarter mile oval. But anytime you build something that big, you're going to spread cars out."

For many years, and even today among those who follow the traditional stick-and-ball sports, NASCAR has been perceived as a Southern sport. Is that accurate?

"I don't think anyone can call it just a Southern sport anymore. I mean, if you truly believe that, you just need to get on a plane, go to the Vegas race, go to the Fontana races, go to Sonoma (Calif.), go to Phoenix and see the crowds. I think that speaks for itself.

"It's a nationwide sport. We go from Watkins Glen (N.Y.) to Loudon (N.H) all the way to Texas, Kansas, Sonoma, Fontana, Vegas, Phoenix. It's East Coast to West Coast now. It's not a Southern sport anymore. We don't just race in the Southeast. To the Northern West Coast, Southern West Coast, Northern East Coast, Southern East Coast -- we're covering all four corners of the United States now."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne