ATLANTA (Nov. 6, 2001) - Ralph Sanchez may have built it, but Tony Stewart owns it. It is Homestead-Miami Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval that has hosted just two NASCAR Winston Cup Series races - both of which have been won by Stewart and the ...
ATLANTA (Nov. 6, 2001) - Ralph Sanchez may have built it, but Tony Stewart owns it. It is Homestead-Miami Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval that has hosted just two NASCAR Winston Cup Series races - both of which have been won by Stewart and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team.
And while not quite the certainties in life that death and taxes are, Stewart winning at Homestead a third straight time is not out of the question.
Heading into Sunday's Pennzoil 400, Stewart has recorded nine top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts. He has three wins already this year, despite the fact that Stewart is typically stronger toward the end of the Winston Cup season.
Six of Stewart's 12 career Winston Cup victories have come in the last three months of the season. And while Stewart may be winless in September and October of this year, his most recent win came at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway on the last weekend of August.
Hungry for win number four, and a three-peat at Homestead, Stewart and Co. tested at the South Florida track following their second-place finish at Talladega (Ala.) three weeks ago.
You're the only Winston Cup race winner at Homestead. Is there a sense of pride that comes with that?
"Yeah, there is a lot of pride. It's always a great honor to win an inaugural race, but to win two races in a row there and know that you're the only guy in the Winston Cup Series since it's been there to win, it's something to hold your head up about. But it just makes it that much harder on us when we go back this year because a lot of people expect us to be a contender to win, and it puts a lot of pressure on us to go out and perform again."
Even though this is just your third year in Winston Cup, you've been racing and winning for a long time. From that experience, how hard is to repeat, never mind three-peat?
"If you just look at the odds, it's tough. The odds of winning two races in a row at a track that you only run once a year are hard, let alone winning three in a row. The odds alone say that it's hard. But we've got a great team and we had a good test there. We used our last test of the year at Homestead, and the reason we did that was to try to keep that competitive edge that we've had there. We'll see what happens. The odds are against us on winning three in a row, but I feel like we've got a great Home Depot Pontiac and a great team. And Homestead is a track where I feel like I've got, not a secret, but a good niche of getting around."
You won the inaugural race at Homestead in your rookie year. It was your third win that season, a rookie record. What was that like?
"It's always special when you can win an inaugural race anywhere. To win at Homestead made me feel proud. I had run there in a Busch car a couple of times, and some of the Cup guys had run some Busch races at Homestead too. But for the most part, everyone was a rookie. Nobody had any more experience than the next guy. We were all on a level playing field. When it was all said and done, we came out on top. It was proud day for The Home Depot team because it gave us a tremendous sense of accomplishment."
Explain a lap around Homestead.
"The biggest thing is that it's hard to make the car turn there. Then if you get the car turning well, you need to make sure it gets up off the corner. Those seem to be the two biggest challenges. If you can get the car to come off the corner well, then normally you're a little bit tight in the center. But if you can get it to turn well through the corner, then normally it's a little loose off. Trying to make the car turn and go forward at the same time is tough because the corners are so big."
Is there another track on the Winston Cup circuit that Homestead compares to?
"I would say it's somewhat similar to Indianapolis, but the corners at Homestead seem like they're twice as long. You're in the corner a long time at Homestead and you're on the straightaways a long time. It's a pretty big race track. Having the corners as flat as they are and as long as they are makes for a big challenge in getting your car to drive well there."
You tested at Homestead the Monday and Tuesday following the Talladega (Ala.) race. How did that go?
"I feel like we had another good test down there. We tested there before last year's race and that helped a lot. During this year's test we found the tire to be extremely tricky, but it always seems to be that way. Wherever we've gone this year it's been tricky. I feel like it was definitely a worthwhile test and a great place to use that last test up, considering what we learned there."
What did you learn at that test?
"C'mon now. I'm not going to tell you that. That's the point - keep everyone else guessing."
Has the track changed much since you were there last year, or is it tough to tell because you have a new tire?
"It's a little bit tough to tell because this year's tire doesn't have near the amount of grip that we had last year. And that race track doesn't have near the amount of grip that a lot of other race tracks that we run on have. But that's what has made us really good at Homestead. It's a track that tends to get slippery very easily. Hopefully, that'll give us the advantage that we need there."
The Home Depot team seems to have done very well in budgeting its test sessions this year. You're only allowed seven test sessions at Winston Cup tracks for the year, but you were able to test at Homestead, Atlanta and Martinsville (Va.) in October. How important was it to save those last three test sessions for those three tracks?
"It's been real important, especially with the way NASCAR has approached this season. I kind of wish he could've saved all seven tests for the last half of the year, because we used three or four of our tests early in the season then NASCAR changed some rules on us. So, a lot of the things that we learned at those tests we had to throw away because of the various rule changes. Unfortunately, NASCAR doesn't give you those tests back, which is why I frown upon NASCAR changing the rules in mid-season. But it was still nice to have some tests saved for the end of the year. We only go to Homestead once a year and it's late in the season, so you have to save at least one test if you want to go there and run well. We saved a second test for Atlanta and that was a really big deal for us. We've always run well there, but typically we're not a top-five car at Atlanta. We're normally an 8th to 10th place car there. And the situation we're in with the point standings right now, I'm glad that we saved those tests for the end of the year and have something to fall back on. So, where we're at in the points we can at least stay there or possibly gain that last spot in front of us."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac
How did your test at Homestead go?
"It was a good test. We learned a few things, even though we didn't get as much done as we would've liked due to some rain. We also probably spent too much time with the two cars that we had there, instead of focusing on just one car. But overall, I think we have a really good starting point. Tony was really happy with the car that we raced there last year and it tested well this year. So, that's The Home Depot Pontiac that we'll bring back.
"But it was just so hot and so sticky when we tested. It's hard to say how we'll really match up, because there were some other people there the week before and the track seemed to be a little bit quicker for them, but I think that's because it was considerably cooler and dryer."
How does having a different tire compound at Homestead this year change your preparation?
"We've just looked at what we've done throughout the year to adapt to this tire at Indy and Pocono (Pa.). Some of what we did worked and some of it didn't work at all. So, we just kind of weeded out the stuff that didn't work and went from there."
Has the track changed much since last year?
"It's hard to say, since the weather was so different and since we have a different tire. We feel like the race track is giving up some grip, just from it being so hot and sunny down there. And the tire seems to have less grip, so that definitely made it a little tougher."
The Home Depot team seems to have done very well in budgeting its test sessions this year. You're only allowed seven test sessions at Winston Cup tracks for the year, but you were able to test at Homestead, Atlanta and Martinsville in October. How important was it to save those last three test sessions for those three tracks?
"We went though a couple of tests right off the bat. We did some testing at non-NASCAR tracks to stay on top of some things as well as some road course testing. Then we saved three tests for the last five or six races on the schedule. We tested at Martinsville and we ended up running really well, we just didn't get to run the whole race. Then we just looked at places where we thought we needed to run better and get our confidence up, whether it be Tony's or mine or the team's. We wanted to have something in the bank at those places. It's tough because everybody's tired and it's hard to get excited about dragging yourself around the country, but it is important. It seems like wherever we test, it really helps Tony because he carries a lot of confidence back into that race track just because he's comfortable. He's already got some laps there. Take Homestead, where if we hadn't tested it would've been over a year since he was last there. But because we tested, we'll unload and probably be a lot better, just because we'll already know what Tony's feeling and looking for inside that race car. It's just kind of what we've done the last couple of years. We'll probably continue to break up our testing like we have."
Seven test dates. Thirty-six races. When you sit down and look at the schedule, how do you decide where to use those tests?
"We'll probably go to Darlington (S.C.) or Rockingham (N.C.) at the beginning of the year, where it's close, just to get everybody up and running again. We're actually thinking about testing at Las Vegas next year, because we think we might be able to learn some flat track stuff there that we might be able to take to some other race tracks that we hit early in the season. We'll also look at where we didn't run well. I like to go to the places we either run really well at or the places where we don't run well at all. The reason for that is if we don't run well, then we need to go there and just get Tony comfortable. That way I'm better able to give Tony the setup that he needs to run well. We just go in there with the attitude that we're going to run a bunch of laps. We're not worried about speed. We just want to build confidence. When we go back to the track for the race we'll work hard on speed. Then the places where we run really well at, like Homestead and Martinsville, we'll test there so that we can unload good for the race. Then during the practice sessions leading up to the race, we'll hopefully go to another level. At a place like Homestead, we can hit the track and already be good, but then go in a bunch of different directions and try some stuff to make ourselves better."
<pre> TONY STEWART'S HOMESTEAD PERFORMANCE PROFILE Year Event Start Finish Status/Laps Laps Led Earnings 2000 Pennzoil 400 13 1 Running/267 166 $291,325 1999 Pennzoil 400 7 1 Running/267 46 $278,265