TONY STEWART With 'Super Bowl' Over, Regular Season Begins ATLANTA (Feb. 20, 2008) -- With the pageantry and final lap disappointment of NASCAR's "Super Bowl" behind him, the 50th running of the Daytona 500 is a distant speck in the rearview ...
With 'Super Bowl' Over, Regular Season Begins
ATLANTA (Feb. 20, 2008) -- With the pageantry and final lap disappointment of NASCAR's "Super Bowl" behind him, the 50th running of the Daytona 500 is a distant speck in the rearview mirror of Tony Stewart's No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. After going from first to third with only a mile remaining in last Sunday's season-opener, Stewart's sights are squarely set on the start of the regular season at California Speedway in Fontana.
The two-mile oval an hour east of Los Angeles is home to round two on the 36-race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. And it's there where teams will face their first true measurement.
Restrictor-plate prowess and drafting partners are of no help at California. California is about what a team and its driver does to go faster than 42 other team/driver combinations. What other teams do or don't do have no bearing on how a particular team will perform in front of NASCAR's No. 1 media market.
Horsepower and putting that power to the pavement through the track's 14-degree banked corners are of paramount importance -- not just at California, but for the rest of the season. Intermediate-type tracks such as California make up the majority of the 22 venues featured on the Sprint Cup schedule. How one performs at California is indicative of how one will perform at similarly styled tracks -- namely Las Vegas Motor Speedway the very next weekend.
Stewart comes into California in one of the best point positions he's ever had this early in the season since joining the Cup ranks in 1999. His third-place result at Daytona slotted him third in points. And with some other potential championship challengers emerging from Daytona in a relative points hole, a quick start by Stewart would allow for a greater cushion to make his fourth appearance in the final, 10-race the Chase for the Championship.
With the Auto Club 500 next up for Stewart, he views it as a stepping-stone to a club he expects to join 25 races from now -- the club of 12 Chase drivers competing for the Sprint Cup championship.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
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."
Is too much emphasis placed on Daytona in terms of how teams are going to perform for the rest of the season?
"I think so. Daytona is a restrictor plate race, and unlike Daytona, four guys can't get in a line at California and go to the front. Daytona and Talladega (Ala.) have always just been two different forms of racing. With the draft being so important at those two tracks, it's more of a team deal than an individual deal. What happens at California and the races after that has to be done on our own. You can't help each other at California. You just have to go race."
How hard is it to win at Daytona, specifically the Daytona 500?
"I think it's harder than ever to win, particularly because you have to rely on everybody else. As an individual driver in that race, you can't count on anything, except that your teammates will be there to work with you."
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."
How different is the feel of the race track from when you were there during the Labor Day weekend?
"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."
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 two-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."
California Speedway is Toyota's home track, as the company's U.S. headquarters is based in Torrance, Calif., so a race at California has added significance for them. When J.D. Gibbs told you that the team was considering switching to Toyota, what did you think? And what are your thoughts now as you get ready to race in Toyota's backyard?
"Well, I admit, it wasn't something I expected to hear from him. I thought he was joking at first, but you can tell really quick whether J.D.'s joking or not. And it didn't take long to realize he wasn't joking. It wasn't a slam on Toyota, it was just that Joe Gibbs Racing had always been a GM race team and I had made some great relationships at GM -- relationships I still have. I asked a lot of questions, obviously, but when he told me that everyone in their competition department had looked at it, and Mark Cronquist (head engine builder for JGR) had looked at it -- and Mark was really the only guy I needed the endorsement from, because the engine side was really the only part that was going to change -- so when the head engine builder says, 'Hey, I think this is going to make us better,' it's hard to say, 'I don't think this is the right thing to do.' You have to take the emotion out of it and say, 'All right, what's the best thing for the race team?' If the team thinks that's what is best, I can't argue with them because I trust them. And after Daytona, where all three of us (teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch) ran well, there's still no argument."
Is this the strongest Joe Gibbs Racing has ever been?
"I think so. Just gauging our performance at all of the pre-season test sessions, all three of us were at the top of the charts. I don't think that's ever happened before. We've had a lot of times where two out of the three of use were up on the board, but not all three. I've already seen a positive result because of that. Three good cars out on the track during a one-hour session gives you three good hours of information. That has to make us better."
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. We don't just race in the Southeast. We're covering all four corners of the United States now."
You're a former open-wheel driver and a former IRL IndyCar Series champion. What do you make of the potential reunification between the IRL and Champ Car?
"It depends on what they do with it once, or if, they get together. It should be a positive thing, but it depends on what it turns into. If it goes back to the way it was, where a driver has to bring a sponsor to get a ride, then it doesn't do any good. It seems like the IRL is kind of getting to that stage anyway, and if that's the case, that's not what the IRL was designed for. What it does is make somebody like me lucky, like hitting the lottery-type lucky. If it weren't for the timing of the IRL being there when I was winning USAC championships, I'm not sure I would've had the opportunities that I had. Guys who have won USAC championships since haven't gotten the chance to race at Indy for a long time now. And I don't know if that's ever going to happen again if they get together, but if they don't get together, I guess it won't happen either.
"If it's going to make the racing better, than it is what it is. For me, the first thing is young American drivers getting the opportunity to race in the Indy 500. And if that's not going to happen, then it'll at least add to the quality of the show. If there's only four or five teams that have the capability of winning the race each week -- if you can make that 12 or 15 teams by combining the series, then the racing is better."