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TONY STEWART Goin' Back to Cali ATLANTA (Feb. 22, 2006) - While L.L. Cool J prefers to go back to Cali in a black Corvette, Tony Stewart prefers the confines of his orange and black ...

Goin' Back to Cali

ATLANTA (Feb. 22, 2006) - While L.L. Cool J prefers to go back to Cali in a black Corvette, Tony Stewart prefers the confines of his orange and black #20 Home Depot Chevrolet in his return to Cali via the 2-mile California Speedway in Fontana.

Sunday's Auto Club 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race is just the second stop on the 36-race schedule, and it marks a return to the routine - qualifying on Friday, practice on Saturday and racing on Sunday. The 12 days that made up Daytona (Fla.) Speedweeks are over, as are the intricacies associated with restrictor plate racing.

The plates are off for drivers and crews, literally and figuratively. They can prove their worth on the race track without the aid of bump-drafting or aerodynamic chicanery.

Stewart and Co. welcome the new beginning, as the two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champions set out to add some more hardware to their ever-expanding trophy case. California is as good a venue as any, for Stewart has four top-10 finishes at the track built atop the remains of the old Kaiser Steel Mill, including a fifth-place run and 56 laps led in his most recent visit to the track last September.

That strong finish was just one of many for Stewart. Dating back to Michigan last June, Stewart has finished in the top-10 in 20 of his last 23 races. Included in that bunch is Stewart's fifth-place run last Sunday at Daytona, marking just the second time the eighth-year driver has started the season within the top-five in points.

After spending so much time in Daytona for Speedweeks, how much of a relief is it to get back to a normal three-day race weekend?

"I think everybody's pretty worn out after being in Daytona for so long. California means a normal routine and a chance for the crew guys to get back to their families for a couple of days before heading to another race track."

Why do you look forward to California so much after racing at Daytona?

"What you do at California is solely based on what you and your team can do with your race car, not what drafting line you're in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move. Once we get away from Daytona everything kind of settles into a groove. We're back in the weekly grind. I enjoy going to California because I really feel that's where our season starts. That's a track where you don't really worry about what everybody else's car is doing. You worry about what your car is doing. You're racing the race track. You're not racing everybody else. It's a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things. Once you leave California, you feel like the season has officially started."

California 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."

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."

For many years, and even today amongst 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 in a plane, go to the Vegas race, go to the Fontana races, go to Sonoma, 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 (Calif.), 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."

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

While you were in Daytona, how much preparation was being made for California?

"We had two new cars that we tested at Vegas, and one of those cars was chosen as our primary for California. The other car was at the wind tunnel while we were in Daytona, and that's going to California as our backup. And we've had both cars on the seven-post 'shake rig' for about six or seven days just to try to get a better understanding of some of the things we experienced during our Vegas test. There were a lot of e-mails and phone calls going back-and-forth between the shop and all of us down in Daytona. Jeff Chandler, our #20 car shop foreman and front tire changer, kept me updated on all that was happening back at the shop. And the good thing about Daytona was that between the Shootout, the Duel and the 500, the guys who were working on our California cars were in Daytona a couple of times. We were all able to get together and talk and know where we were with everything. We were able to communicate one-on-one about some of the issues that we've had in getting these cars ready for California."

What's new about the new generation Chevrolet Monte Carlo you're using in 2006?

"It's not much different at all. It's more cosmetic differences with a slightly different nose and hood. It has a little bit different balance. What we don't know is that just because the wind tunnel says one thing, doesn't mean the car will react the same way in traffic on the race track. So, that's what we're trying to learn now."

How much will your Las Vegas test back in late January translate to California?

"Obviously, they're different race tracks, but there are things you can learn. For us, the biggest thing was just getting track time with a new car. It gave us a good base of knowledge to take with us to California."

Do you look forward to California in that you're able to get back to a normal Friday-Saturday-Sunday routine?

"Yeah, because I think you're a little bit more in control with how your car runs and what you can do to make yourself better. And if we come back and run the way we did back in the fall, I'll be even more excited."


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart