Home Depot Racing Richmond preview

ATLANTA (May 1, 2001) - Just five races ago, Tony Stewart was mired 18th in points. But three top-10 finishes in the last five races has quietly enabled Stewart to climb nine places to ninth, 234 points behind current point leader Dale ...

ATLANTA (May 1, 2001) - Just five races ago, Tony Stewart was mired 18th in points. But three top-10 finishes in the last five races has quietly enabled Stewart to climb nine places to ninth, 234 points behind current point leader Dale Jarrett.

With his strong runs of late, Stewart seems to have upped his timetable when it comes to making a run at the championship.

Typically, Stewart has started his season slow. In three years on the Winston Cup circuit, Stewart has led a total of just 98 laps in the first 10 races. During that same time span, his average start is 17th and his average finish is 15th.

But this year, Stewart is currently 99 points better than he was last year at this time, and he also has the benefit of two extra races on the Winston Cup schedule thanks to the additions of Chicago and Kansas City.

So, where does Stewart characteristically pick up the pace? It's none other than Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, home to this Saturday night's Pontiac Excitement 400.

Richmond is the site of Stewart's first career win, which came in September of 1999. Stewart led 333 of 400 laps that evening, and almost made it two Richmond wins in a row before a pit road run-in with Dale Earnhardt Jr. late in last year's spring race dropped Stewart from first to eighth.

Despite the bitter loss endured at Richmond roughly one year ago, the resulting eighth-place finish proved to be a springboard for Stewart.

He rattled off six top-10 finishes in the next seven races, including three wins at Dover (Del.), Michigan and New Hampshire, respectively. By the time the series rolled into Pocono in July, Stewart stood fifth in points, 215 points behind leader Bobby Labonte. His rise from 17th in points following the Daytona 500 to fifth in 17 races turned many media members into artists, as they began to paint Stewart into the championship picture.

Ten races into the season, you're actually closer to the point leader now than you were at this point last year. And last year, by the time mid-summer rolled around, you were considered a threat for the championship. Do you feel that you can make a run for the championship this year?
"Well, we still need to find some things that are hurting us right now. But if we can find those variables, I definitely think that we're a serious contender and still a threat. You're never out of it until you're out of it. We had two more races added onto the schedule this year, so that's two more opportunities to help us get caught up. We still have time to do this."

The Home Depot Team really seems to pick up its performance and its consistency at this point in the season. Why do you think that is?
"I think we're in a part of the season where the tracks are starting to get hot and slippery, and it seems like when the tracks get slippery is when we start coming on."

Do you feel that the next two or three months of the Winston Cup schedule is where this team can make the most headway in its quest for the championship?
"Yeah, and I'm excited. We're coming up on a string of tracks where I run well, for whatever the reason. It just seems like this is the part of the season where we get going. If we're going to make a run for the championship, then this is the time. We don't have time to wait any longer. We have to make the most of our races starting right now. You need to make the most of it every week, but last week is past and we need to make the most of this weekend and every weekend after that. We just need to get everything we can get for the rest of the year."

Richmond seemed to be a track that you felt very comfortable with right from the start. Why was that?
"Having run the (USAC) Silver Crown car and the Midget there in the past didn't hurt. It was just one of those tracks that I liked. It's the only three-quarter mile track we run on all year, but for some reason, it's a size that I really enjoy running on."

What are some of the other types of cars you've raced at Richmond?
"The Silver Crown car, the Midget and a Busch car. I ran second in a midget to Kenny Irwin there and I think I ran fifth or something in the Silver Crown car, but I can't remember what the years were off-hand."

How did those past experiences help you when you first visited Richmond in a Winston Cup car?
"I knew where all the bumps were on the race track. It was just a matter of adjusting to what the The Home Depot Pontiac wanted - knowing how to drive the car and letting it do what it wanted to do, instead of trying to force it into something that it didn't want to do."

Is Richmond similar to any other tracks that you've raced on in your career?
"It just reminded me of some of the shorter tracks that I've run. It had kind of the same feel that quarter-mile tracks did with some of the other cars that I've run with. It wasn't a big drastic change. It was like Phoenix the first time I went there. I hadn't been to a one-mile oval but once in my life, but when I got onto Phoenix, I adjusted and adapted to it really quickly. It was a place where I became very comfortable right away. I had that same feeling when I went to Richmond for the first time with The Home Depot car. I think every driver has a track that they go to where they get that same feeling. There are just some places that you go to where you adjust, and it really suits your driving style."

Because you've won there, do you have higher expectations going into Richmond, or do you treat it as just another points-paying race?
"I think that with the way our season is going, we have to look at it like it's just another race. But it's going to be hard to not have in the back of your mind that this is where you won your first Cup race and expect to run well. I'm not sure we'd go in there and expect to win again. I think we've got a shot to win, but to go there and expect it - we don't do that. But we do expect to run well and hopefully contend for the win."

Obviously, night racing is a lot different than racing during the day. With such a long day on Saturday, what kinds of things do you do to alter your schedule to best prepare yourself for the race?
"Right after the driver's meeting, I go back to my coach and take a shower and basically treat it like after happy hour, that's the end of Saturday. I go back to the bus, lie down and take a nap just like I would on Saturday night. Although I only get to sleep for three hours, it's kind of like what my Saturday evening and Sunday morning would be like. Right before driver introductions, I take a shower, get something to eat and then go change into my uniform. I just try to rest as much as possible and try to let my body recharge for the race."

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

Ten races into the season, you're actually closer to the point leader now than you were at this point last year. And last year, by the time mid-summer rolled around, you were considered a threat for the championship. Do you feel that you can once again make a run for the championship this year?
"If we had just finished where we were running in most of our races this year, we'd be about third or fourth in the points right now. But we are further ahead than we were last year at this time, and we're coming into a couple of good tracks where we can pick up some more momentum. Seventh at Martinsville (Va.) was actually a good run for us. Then to go to Talladega (Ala.) and run as good as we did, along with qualifying and racing well at California, it's put us in pretty good position.

Zipadelli on making a run for this year's championship continued:
"As far as the championship goes, our position does make it a little tougher because the '88' has been so consistent. But not wishing them or the '24' to have a bad day, but they're all going to have bad days. If we get on a tear like we did in the middle part of last season; obviously our goal each year is to do better than the year before. We met part of that last year by winning more races and leading more laps, but we didn't do as well in the points because of a little bit of inconsistency. So, we're trying to keep our consistency there and still win as many races. We're looking forward to it. We've got a bunch of good tracks coming up here in May and June."

The Home Depot Team really seems to pick up its performance and its consistency at this point in the season. Why do you think that is?
"I just think that it may be due to some of our inexperience as a team, because this Home Depot team is still a young team. Goodyear has changed the tire a bunch and Tony has had to deal with that. We didn't think it was going to be as big a change as it was at some of these places earlier, so we didn't test. We saved most of our tests and we're just starting to hit them now through the mid-season. From mid-season through the end of the year, we've got five tests. Hopefully that'll make us stronger, where in the past we've done a bunch of tests at the beginning of the year and wished that we had some tests left over at the end of the year. We're playing it safe, but we're kind of playing both ends of the field. We actually ran better this year at Atlanta. Darlington's (S.C.) another track where we ran well. We came into the pits third there and got wrecked on pit road. We had tested there and had a very, very strong test, and we felt like we had as good a car as anybody on long runs. I do honestly think that we could've been a top-five car there with no problem, but we ended up getting wrecked. If you look at instances like that, look at Atlanta where we ran in the top-10 all day long only to lose the motor late in the race; but that's a strong as we've been at Atlanta. It seems like we're always able to run at Rockingham (N.C.) in the top-five and we were able to do that. I think that if you really look at our year, other than the exception of Texas, we didn't run that badly in the first part of this year. It's been a little up and down with our qualifying, but we're still learning. We're always learning. We might get frustrated, but we take a couple of deep breaths and get back to work. I think all of that just comes with experience."

Do you feel that the next two or three months of the Winston Cup schedule is where this team can make the most headway in its quest for the championship?
"Well, we may think that a little bit once in a while, but this sport is so humbling that you just need to take it day by day, race by race. We've always run well at California, and we've always seemed to run well at Bristol (Tenn.). We didn't qualify very well at Bristol, but we eventually got the car really good in the race and we were headed for a fourth-place finish, but with a quarter of a lap to go we ended up 25th after our incident with Jeff Gordon. We lost 80 points that day just because of somebody else's greediness. If you look at that, you can say, 'That was out of our control.' But give me that back, and we'd be fifth in the points now, never mind giving me back that 10th at Atlanta or that top-five at Darlington. Now I know there are a lot of people who can look at their season that way, but you've got to look at yourself every week and say, 'Did we run better?' If the answer is yes, then maybe you can sleep that night. I know this sport is still a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of sport, but that's why we're here. We're all paid to perform. Excuses are easy. We just need to keep digging." <pre> TONY STEWART'S RICHMOND PERFORMANCE PROFILE Year Event Start Finish Status/Laps Laps Led Earned 2000 Pontiac Excitement 400 7 8 Running/400 69 $49,350 Team Monte Carlo 400 14 6 Running/400 5 $55,130 1999 Pontiac Excitement 400 30 15 Running/399 0 $27,225 Exide NASCAR Select 400 2 1 Running/400 333 $135,160

-Home Depot-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart