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TONY STEWART Whole New Ballgame ATLANTA (Feb. 22, 2005) - Major League Baseball saw its pitchers and catchers report to spring training last week, with the rest of its players from teams situated in Arizona's Cactus League and ...

Whole New Ballgame

ATLANTA (Feb. 22, 2005) - Major League Baseball saw its pitchers and catchers report to spring training last week, with the rest of its players from teams situated in Arizona's Cactus League and Florida's Grapefruit League reporting this week. And as a new season of ballgames looms for the boys of summer, there's a whole new ballgame this weekend for those in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.

While the Nextel Cup season officially kicked off last Sunday at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway with the Daytona 500, a different style of racing with a different set of rules greets drivers for Sunday's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway in Fontana.

At Daytona drivers drove race cars with engines choked by carburetor restrictor plates and rear spoiler heights of 6 ¾ inches. They raced in freight train-like packs and had to rely on the drafts from one another's cars to move forward. That won't be the case at California.

The restrictor plates are gone, but so too is the high rear spoiler. Teams will see their rear blade cut to 4 ½ inches. And with a new generation Goodyear tire to contend with, the story at Fontana will be drivability. Teams will spend Friday figuring out just how fast their car can go while circling the 2-mile oval on a softer compound tire with less rear downforce planting that car to the race track.

And in an added subplot, they'll have to contend with NASCAR's new gear rule. Implemented to contain costs and enhance competition, the rule restricts teams to a NASCAR-determined set of gear ratios that will limit the maximum amount of rpms an engine can produce. High gear ratios designed to turn high rpms - sometimes past the 10,000 rpm mark - in an effort to make more horsepower that used costly engine parts are now a thing of the past. The new rule could hurt teams that relied on high-revving engines for their fast times, while teams that took a more conservative approach to horsepower output could benefit.

One of those teams that balanced conservatism with speed was Joe Gibbs Racing. In 2004 the outfit reported no race-related DNFs (Did Not Finish) via engine failure, with Tony Stewart and his #20 Home Depot Chevrolet collecting two wins, 10 top-fives, 19 top-10s and finishing sixth in the season-ending point standings to log six straight seasons with a top-10 point finish. In fact, the #20 team has never finished lower than seventh in points since joining the circuit full-time in 1999.

The team's even-keeled approach to engine tuning combined with Stewart's dirt track lineage racing USAC Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown race cars on both dirt and pavement have led many to believe that it's the #20 Home Depot Racing Team with an upper hand entering California and the 34 races thereafter.

You tested at Texas, California and Las Vegas during the off-season. What did you learn about the new spoiler and tire combination?

"Until we get around other cars in race conditions, we're really not going to know how much of an affect the reduced spoiler height and the new tire compound will have. It didn't seem like it was a huge change for us. The test at Texas was a tire test for Goodyear, so you don't really get to work on your car a whole lot. You're there to test tires more than you are your race car. But I did feel comfortable in the car."

Do you have any concerns with the smaller rear spoiler and the new tire compound being introduced this year?

"No, it is what it is. Things are going to change constantly, and no matter what changes you've got to learn to deal with it and learn to make the best of it. We ran at Texas for two days doing a Goodyear tire test and we didn't have any dramas. We'll see what happens when we get around other cars, but The Home Depot Chevrolet wasn't uncomfortable by itself."

Will having less downforce and softer tires better suit your driving style?

"I've lain in bed at night wondering if it will. We really won't know until we get a little deeper into the season. I'm hoping so. Two years ago we were in situations where track position was everything and you could run 150 laps on a set of tires and be just as fast as a guy with 30 laps on his tires. Last year we got away from that a little bit and hopefully this year we'll get away from it even more and get it back to where it was when I started in this series. Back then you had to really pay attention to your tire wear and not overdrive the car too early. Hopefully, we'll get into that kind of situation again.

"You're still going to find a balance in your race car. Everybody's cars aren't going to suddenly be loose. We'll be able to balance them out just like we always do no matter what the package is. We'll see how it affects all of us when we're in a crowd and there's less air on top of our cars."

With all the rules changes that have occurred during your six previous years in Nextel Cup, do you feel that your USAC background better prepared you to adapt to whatever rules changes NASCAR adopted?

"I don't think it hurt, by any means. In USAC you might run a Midget on a quarter-mile dirt track one night, and then the next night you'd be on a half-mile pavement track with a Sprint car before running a mile dirt track the next day with a Silver Crown car. Bouncing around like that between two different surfaces and three types of cars probably does help when they make big changes that affect the way these cars drive. You don't get stuck on a certain feel of a race car, so when changes come around it's just a matter of getting the balance back again. But I think all the drivers at this level, not just the guys who came from an open-wheel background, but the guys who have made it from Late Models at local short tracks and on up the ladder, they've all learned to adapt, and that's why they've made it as far as they have."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:

When you tested at California the conditions were incredibly windy. Were you still able to learn anything?

"It was windy, but everyone who was there had to deal with the same wind so it was the same for everybody. We weren't the fastest car in the wind but we weren't the slowest car either. Still, we needed to continue to work and make the best of our time there.

"The new tire wasn't a big deal. It made us tighter. We didn't get to run in a bunch of traffic to really see what it was going to be like. So the key will be to see what happens when you put 43 cars together and drop the green flag, when everyone is on equal tires and you have all that air moving around. When you're out there running by yourself and you go out and you get 20 laps on your tires and the next guy goes right past you because he's got a set of stickers on his car, or when you get new tires and you catch somebody and drive by them, those kinds of scenarios don't show up during testing. Because when you're testing, everyone has different tires on their car. Some are old, some are new and some are in between. When we unload at California and get into race practice, it'll be a little different because everyone will have close to the same amount of laps on their tires. But where you'll really see it is in the race, when they drop the green flag and 43 cars are out there running together. You'll see the aero push and hear drivers talking about their cars feeling like they're up on top of the race track."

Is the new tire you're using this year a softer compound or does it have a softer sidewall construction or is it a little bit of both?

"It's a combination of a lot of things. The construction is different on some of them. Sidewalls are different. The compound is different. The left side tires are a little softer than what we've had in the past, but across the board I don't know if any of us know what's really changed in the tires this year. There seems to be something a little different in all of them. Goodyear is just trying to get us a little better tire to match our handling package. We're just going to have to wait and see. I don't think the tires this year are any major change and I don't think they're going to make the racing any better."

What affect does the reduced height of the rear spoiler and the new tire have on the handling characteristics of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet?

"We worked on our race car just like everyone else did to try to compensate for the loss of downforce. Everybody went into those tests with different sideforces or took a little front downforce off or worked harder on getting some rear downforce back so that we could get back whatever balance we lost over the winter. These new changes are going to really show up when you have a guy to the outside of you or a guy underneath you and you're racing two- or three-wide at these race tracks. You're going 190 mph and you don't have any grip. You saw a lot of guys last year spin out, and you'll have that because to go fast you have to be on the edge. But the problem comes when somebody runs up next to you and throws you a curveball and spins you out. I think you'll see a lot more of that with this new package."

Is NASCAR's new gear rule - where they determine a select number of gears a team is able to run during a given race weekend - something that benefits Joe Gibbs Racing, since the team never really pushed the high rpm numbers via gear selection that some other teams did?

"I don't know. I think there were a few teams way up on their gear selection, but their motor programs were pretty good so they could handle the strain. And since their motor programs were good to begin with, I think they'll bounce right back. I don't think the new gear rule will be any disadvantage to us, by any means, and hopefully in the long run it'll show to be a little bit of an advantage for us. Our reliability has gotten so much better, and we really want to stay focused on that because just finishing races is so important."

Do you like the gear rule in that it levels the playing field even more, or do you dislike it because it takes away some of your creativity in making the car go fast?

"At some places it's going to hurt and make the racing tougher because we won't be able to run the gears that we're used to running, but at other places we're going to be allowed to run some gears that we haven't run in the past. I understand why NASCAR is doing it because it helps contain costs, but I don't know how much it'll save. I realize that right now it may not save a ton of money, but I think we need to look two, three or even five years down the road.

"Now we need to go back and work on other areas to try to find horsepower. The gear rule hasn't stopped us from working on our motors. It kept us from working on drive train and overall reliability, which gets very expensive when you're turning such high rpms. In the long run it's probably a good thing. They've done it in a lot of other series. We had it in the Modified Series when I used to work up there (in New England). That may not be the healthiest series right now but I do think their gear rule has helped keep that series alive as well as some of the other lower series because the rule makes the motors run a little bit longer."

You worked with Robin Pemberton when he was a fellow crew chief, but how have you worked with Pemberton in his new role as NASCAR's vice president of competition?

"Right now I think he's just taking everything in and finding areas where he can help now and in the future. He's a great guy, a great person - professionally and personally as far the way he is and the way he conducts himself and treats people. Any time you add someone like that to a series it's a plus. And his racing experience and the years he's already invested in this sport - we've got someone in there now who kind of thinks a little bit more like we do. He can bring some balance to those times when people are over-reacting or under-reacting. We holler and scream about one thing and they come out with rules for that. We create all the rules and rule changes because of what we do. It's nobody's fault but our own. We're competitors. We get paid to come up with ideas and push the envelope. And NASCAR has to respond by making rule changes or new rules altogether and then enforcing those rules. I think what Robin brings is just some balance, thinking about how to run a race team, the costs of it, while also thinking about what helps NASCAR and the series continue to grow and be strong. Because let's face it, a lot of people here make a pretty good living. It's frustrating sometimes, but it's really not a bad place to be."


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing