ATLANTA (Oct. 2, 2001) - Tony Stewart has not finished outside of the top-10 since Michigan on Aug. 19 when he finished 27th. In the five races run following the Michigan event, Stewart has earned a first-place finish at Bristol (Tenn.), a fourth...
ATLANTA (Oct. 2, 2001) - Tony Stewart has not finished outside of the top-10 since Michigan on Aug. 19 when he finished 27th. In the five races run following the Michigan event, Stewart has earned a first-place finish at Bristol (Tenn.), a fourth at Darlington (S.C.), a seventh at Richmond (Va.), a fifth at Dover (Del.) and an eighth at Kansas. This has enabled the driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac to climb from fifth to third in the championship point standings, the highest Stewart has ever risen in the point standings since joining the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 1999.
The chase for the Winston Cup championship may very well be whittled down to just Jeff Gordon and Ricky Rudd, but there is still a tight points race involving drivers between third and 10th in the standings. Eight races remain on the Winston Cup calendar, so time is of the essence.
For Stewart, the Oct. 7 UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte (N.C.) may very well be a microcosm of his season. The 1.5-mile Charlotte oval is a track where Stewart has always run well, but more so toward the end of the race. Coincidentally, in the last eight races of the 1999 and 2000 campaigns, Stewart has scored five of his 12 career victories.
The end is in sight, but Stewart's sights are set on Sunday's race. The motto of "One race at a time" still applies.
Charlotte is a track where you've run very well as of late, especially toward the end of the race. Is there any particular reason why?
"It seems like everywhere we go our car is good midway, right through the end of a run. Between the setup that Greg (Zipadelli, crew chief) puts underneath the car and my driving style, that's just the way it ends up working out. It seems like once we get in a rhythm there, and once I get in a position where I can take care of my car and not abuse the tires, I can maintain my car a little bit better through a run than some other guys. But it can work in your favor and it can work against you. If you come down to a 15-lap shootout and everybody comes in for tires, we're not normally an odds-on favorite at that point to go win the race. But if it goes 45 or 50 laps, then we've got a shot at it. It's a hit or miss type situation, but normally through the day if you can be good on long runs, you've probably got a car that's a contender to be there near the end."
Can any of your Charlotte success be transferred to places like Atlanta and Texas?
"Well, they're just different places in all reality. Charlotte has bumps that Texas and Atlanta don't have. Texas is a one-groove track, while at Atlanta you can take The Home Depot Pontiac from the wall to the apron and run anywhere you want, basically. They all have the same layout, but each of them has their own personalities. Some things do apply, but some things don't. So, that means that there aren't any guarantees on what you think you might have going into Charlotte."
How different is Charlotte when you race there in October compared to when you raced there in May?
"Between Atlanta and Texas, Charlotte does seem to be the most sensitive to temperature. It seems like the three or four weeks leading up to that race are probably the most important, as far as what the weather conditions have been, how much heat isn't necessarily on the surface at the time, but more so how much heat has soaked into the ground during the summer. In May, it seems like the weather is still fairly decent. It's still pretty cool at night, but as the summer wears on and as the days get longer, the track gets a lot more heat in it and it seems to retain that heat when we unload for the fall race. Typically, it always feels like the track for the fall race is a little bit slicker than for the spring race."
You've said that you run a unique line around Charlotte. Explain the line you run.
"It's the same line that I run in qualifying. As the tires get older a lot of drivers will move up off the bottom of the track through turns three and four. I'm able to stay right on the bottom with the setup that we run. It's hard to do that because the race track is a lot rougher on the bottom of three and four. So, it's a unique challenge for us to find a balance as to what we need to do to The Home Depot Pontiac to make it compatible with the tire."
Is turn four as treacherous as everyone claims? How so?
"With the line I run I have a lot of room coming off turn four since I run on the bottom. But when a lot of guys over the course of the race move up to the top of the race track, then it does become treacherous because it gets really tight coming off of turn four. That and the banking falls off real hard, too. It makes for a unique challenge. Turns one and two are pretty muchonce you get in there you can get right back on the gas and stay in it. Turns three and four are a different story. With the years of the sun beating down on that part of the track, Mother Nature hasn't been kind to that end of the race track. So, it's bumpier and the cars will move around a little more. So, that makes it a little harder to get through."
At this point in the season, how much of a luxury is it to have a race so close to home?
"It's nice to be able to go home on a race weekend and sleep in your own bed. I know that doesn't sound like a very big deal, but when you travel as much as we do, any time that you can spend at home is important, especially at this time of year. There are a lot of drivers and crew members who are starting to get burned out, and a lot of families who are starting to get burned out. So, it's nice to be able to spend a race weekend in your hometown where you can go home and see your friends and family at the end of the day and sit back in your own house and just relax."
How much time will you be spending over at the Dirt Track with your World of Outlaws team?
"I'll still do anything I can to help, but when you've got guys who are on the road over 100 days a year racing with each other, you kind of just let them do their thing. If they need my help, they'll ask for it. I'm there to give as much support as I can, but at the same time, I don't want to disrupt the rhythm that they have. They've been running really well lately and they still have a shot at winning the point championship this year. So, I don't want to do anything that'll jeopardize the rhythm they've got going on right now. They know me well enough, and with my background being in that style of racing, not necessarily with the winged sprint cars, but when I go there they know that I can do a lot of things that will free them up time-wise to help them do other things and concentrate on different areas of the race car. It's nice to be in a position where I know I can go in and help and not be a hindrance or be in the way. So, if I can go there and help than I can guarantee you I will."
Your first-year World of Outlaws team is in a fight for the championship. How satisfying is that?
"It's very satisfying. The Outlaw series is not an easy series at all, especially when there are so many races to run. And with that many races, there's plenty of opportunity to make mistakes. But with as good of a job as the guys have done this year, especially considering that they're a rookie team, it's impressive. There were probably some things in their minds, like getting logistics worked out, bookkeeping, just learning how to make it all work and work properly, that could've been a distraction. But they overcame those obstacles in their first year and went through the growing pains, even though they might not have always seem them as growing pains. What they've done is a big accomplishment in my book."
How would you describe your first year as a car owner? What have you learned?
"I don't think there's been anything that's surprised me. I pretty much knew what I was getting into. My expectations this year were to finish in the top-five in points at the end of the year. I knew that if we had that type of year than we would be capable of winning. As it turns out, we're having a really good year and we're still in the hunt for the championship. Now, I don't think any of us expected to win a championship, but I also figured that none of our competitors expected us to win a championship. I didn't expect to win the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals this year, but I knew that we had as good a shot at it as anybody did because we had Danny (Lasoski), it was Knoxville, and we had Jimmy Carr as our crew chief. So, I knew we had the right opportunity to win it, but I sure as heck didn't expect to go out in our rookie year as a fresh, new team and be able to contend for a championship like we are."