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TONY STEWART Part of an Elite Club in Auto Club 500 ATLANTA (Feb. 21, 2007) -- So Tony Stewart is 40th in points to start the 2007 edition of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. So what? The two-time Nextel Cup champion and driver of the No. 20...

Part of an Elite Club in Auto Club 500

ATLANTA (Feb. 21, 2007) -- So Tony Stewart is 40th in points to start the 2007 edition of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. So what?

The two-time Nextel Cup champion and driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing won his first championship in 2002 after finishing last in the Daytona 500 when an engine failure cut his race short on just the second lap of the 200-lap race. By the seventh race of the 2002 season, Stewart was a mainstay within the top-10 in points, taking the championship lead after the 30th race of the year at Talladega (Ala.).

And in 2007, Stewart is in good company, as three other past champions along with a handful of title contenders left Daytona with finishes of 25th or worse.

Entering Sunday's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway in Fontana, Stewart and fellow Nextel Cup champions Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth are in a club of their own, as all are outside of the top-25 in points. Joining them is a handful of drivers who have vied for championships in the past, as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin are also 25th or worse in the championship standings.

But it's just the second round of the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule, with plenty of time to make significant gains toward the top of the point standings.

For Stewart, a winner of 29 point-paying Nextel Cup races, he has added incentive to not only run well at California, but to win. The 2-mile oval in Fontana is one of just four Nextel Cup venues where Stewart has yet to record a victory, the others being Las Vegas, Talladega and Darlington (S.C.).

While Stewart hasn't yet won at California, he has run well, logging five top-10 finishes and leading 185 laps in his 11 career starts. And in companion NASCAR Busch Series races at California, Stewart finished second in May 2004, won the pole with a track record time of 38.722 seconds at 185.941 mph in February 2005 -- a mark that still stands -- and finished sixth in September 2006, all while leading a total of 23 laps.

Aiding Stewart's goal of winning at California is the orange and black Home Depot Chevrolet built by his Greg Zipadelli-led Joe Gibbs Racing team. Chassis No. 120 is Stewart's ride for California -- the same mount that won three of the last eight races in 2006. Chassis No. 120 out-fueled the field to win a gas mileage race at Kansas, then just out-performed everyone else in dominating fashion by scoring back-to-back wins at Atlanta and Texas, leading 424 of an available 664 laps (64 percent).

With a shot at a Daytona 500 victory dashed by a crash, Stewart and Co. come to California intent on securing career win No. 30.

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."

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."

How different is the feel of the race track from when you were there during the Labor Day weekend to now?

"It has a lot more grip in the spring because it's cooler. Still, even when you're in California at that time of year, there's still a good shot that the track's going to be a little 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."

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."

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. , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Denny Hamlin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing