Champion's press conference Part 1 of 2. TONY STEWART, NO. 20 HOME DEPOT PONTIAC GRAND PRIX: finished 18th, won first Winston Cup championship ON TODAY'S RACE BEING TOUGH: "To be honest, we never gave up. I honestly didn't know where we...
Champion's press conference
Part 1 of 2.
TONY STEWART, NO. 20 HOME DEPOT PONTIAC GRAND PRIX: finished 18th, won first Winston Cup championship
ON TODAY'S RACE BEING TOUGH:
"To be honest, we never gave up. I honestly didn't know where we were at position-wise until we got a lap down. That was the first time that I asked and that's the first time that they told me anything. I went into this race - like I told you guys yesterday - I honestly thought we had a shot to win. I didn't realize we were as bad as we were. I don't think we were real bad. It was just that the car didn't like being in traffic at all. It liked being in clean air, but we really struggled today. That's not how we've ever, ever run here and I guess until the day I die, I'll wonder what happened today. But, the best thing about it was we got a lap down there and, unfortunately the yellow came out, I think, three or four laps after that and we weren't close enough to Nemechek to get our lap back. But, we came in the pits third of the lap-down cars and the guys made a real aggressive change and got us out ahead of everybody that was a lap down. When the green dropped we were able to get out ahead of those guys and keep good track position there. Once the yellow came out, it was perfect timing. It was either going to happen then, or it was going to happen when Andretti had his problem. But, we were pulling away from the leader and we were fine to get away from every one of those guys. But, we just could never get in clean enough air to get the car happy.
"We never gave up. Nobody gave up the whole day. We never got frustrated with each other on the radio. We did this the way that we got here and that was as a team. We never gave up on each other. Zippy was encouraging me all day. I could hear from the spotter who was watching the 'big screen' and asked if Zippy was breathing still and I thought, 'Oh man, I'm going to lose my crew chief before this thing is over with.' It kind of just loosened me up a little bit, I guess.
"Once we got back on the lead lap there I felt much better about it and kind of got my second wind for the race."
DOES EACH CHAMPIONSHIP THAT YOU WIN GET A LITTLE SWEETER?
"They sure get harder. That's for sure. It was hard to do what we did in '95, obviously, winning three national (USAC) championships. But, the Indy Car championship - we blew a lot of motors up, which, that was just characteristic of the IRL at that time. We had a lot of engine problems that year. It was kind of like our season here for us in Winston Cup this year. When we finished we ran well and were strong each of those races and gained a lot of points in those races.
"They're all hard in their own way. But, to start the season off this year the way we did - 43rd in points after Daytona - to be able to rebound from all that, go through all the things that we went through this year and still keep our focus, to get the points that we needed to do what we did today - I still have a hard time believing we've done and accomplished what we've accomplished this year. We didn't do anything magical. We didn't do anything special. But, it was more of a personal victory with our team.
"I practically destroyed this team by mid-season, single-handedly, and Zippy was the glue that held everybody together. Zippy was the friend that got me back on track and got my mindset right to do what we did the rest of the year.
"None of us could have done it without the whole group. This was a team effort this year. I'm not saying anything that you don't normally hear from everybody else's race teams, but I don't think you guys realize what all went into winning this championship this year and how hard it was.
"Zippy played multiple roles. He wasn't just a crew chief all year. He had a to be a crew chief, a baby sitter/best friend and a huge leader. That is normally Joe's role. But, Zippy held this team together single-handedly and kept everybody motivated and focused to do what we did this year and we couldn't have done it without him."
"I was going to get out sooner, but they told me to stay in. A lot of it I was just thinking about the trip down the pit lane. Guys from Mark Martin's crew came out - Ben Leslie came out - guys from all the teams came out to congratulate us. As much as everybody wanted to get out of here and go home because we all deserve a break and we all need a break and we all want to go home and spend time with our families - they thought it was important to come out and see me. To have your peers come out there and congratulate you like that - I don't care what check Winston writes, I don't care how many trophies they give me - the feeling and satisfaction of seeing those guys out there is more than money can buy. It's like those commercials that say 'priceless.' You couldn't put a price tag on having that many guys from that many different teams feel happy for you and want to congratulate you on your year. That is probably what I'm going to remember most about this championship."
DOES THIS MOMENT ECLIPSE A LOT OF THE FRUSTRATIONS FROM THIS YEAR?
"I've like I've said every year - you learn as you go. I still don't agree with everything NASCAR does, but the things they do they do for a reason and it's what has made NASCAR what it is right now. You know what? I'm a race car driver. I don't have to understand everything that they do and I don't have to agree with everything they do. I just have to abide by their rules. It's like I've always said, you never get an instructional video, they don't give you a 'freshman pamphlet' saying, 'This is what your life is going to be like. This is how you do things. This is what is going to happen to you when you're in the garage area.' None of that is explained to you. None of that is taught to you. It is trial and error and Lord knows I've had enough trials and errors, and more errors than trials. But, as you go on, you learn. You learn about how to deal with the things. The reward is what you do on the racetrack. All those things that we've learned in the past didn't contribute to winning the championship. But, it makes winning a championship a lot more enjoyable when you start figuring out the rest of it along with it."
WAS THERE A TIME DURING THE SEASON WHEN YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT JUST CHUCKING IT IN AND MOVING ON TO DO SOMETHING ELSE?
"I can't afford to chuck it. I have some really big bills each month (laugh). But that's not why I stayed with it.
"I made my father a promise when I was eight years old: to the day I die I intend to live by it. I told him that the day that I don't enjoy what I'm doing...if I didn't enjoy it anymore... then I'd quit doing it. That's when you can get hurt. If there comes a day that I truly don't enjoy it anymore, then I'll quit. I will get up and walk away. There is a lot of stuff that happened to us this year... I can't imagine any year coming up being worse than this year. I think I got... I'm hoping and praying... that I got the worst of it behind us.
"I've been here four years, and when we came Winston Cup racing then, it's nothing like it is now. And in four years from now, we're going to say the same thing. I got no plans for leaving.
"For what my team experienced today and the best part about it was to see when Zippy got there...and to see Zippy there and to see Zippy cry. I knew I could make him cry. I just wanted to do it the right way. (laughter) To make him cry today and for the reason that he cried today - that was what I will think was special."
DURING THE PROBLEMS OF THE YEAR, WAS THE TEAM ABLE TO CARRY ON, OR DID IT REQUIRE ZIPPY TO DO SOMETHING? AND DID THE RESPECT YOU HAVE RECEIVED FROM YOUR PEERS HAVE A POSITIVE EFFECT?
"Both of them were big. You'd be surprised by how many guys have come up and said thank you for saying something that they wanted to say but were to scared because they were scared of getting in trouble. I just make a habit of getting in trouble. There are a lot of things that aren't perfect, but NASCAR is doing the very best that they can to take care of everybody. We always try to look after the fans. Everyone is trying to do a job and the pressures get higher and higher every year. When put all together, it's a hard equation to make perfect. I do think NASCAR works hard to try to do that.
"As for the team, there were times that people wanted to leave because they didn't want to work for me. I didn't blame them. The way my attitude was mid-season, I wouldn't have worked for me. We did lose a couple of guys. And Zippy replaced them with guys that did a great job filling in. I never once blamed them (for leaving.) We don't have a lot of turnover at Joe Gibbs Racing. Probably one of the lowest turnover ratios of any of the Winston Cup teams. That's something we're all real proud of. I've had hearts-to-hearts with a lot of guys in Zippy's office. And I've said, 'I'm sorry for what I'm doing to you guys. I'm not doing it because I want to hurt you...I'm doing it because I'm frustrated. If you bare with me we'll make it right.' Hopefully with this championship I've gone some of the way toward making things right. There are a lot of things I'm not ever going to be able to repair with some of these guys. But they've stood behind me, through thick and thin, for four years. And the end result is that we're Winston Cup Champions."
WAS IT A RELIEF TO JUST GET IN THE CAR GIVEN ALL THE CHAMPIONSHIP DISTRACTIONS?
"It used to be. But it's only three and a half hours of a reprieve. It's not long enough. (laughs) I was talking to my girlfriend Jamie last night...and I was feeling like something was wrong because I was real calm about everything. I was just real relaxed. For some reason, I didn't feel nervous.
"I was like we're going to do what we normally do: spend some time together Saturday night, go to bed, get up Sunday morning and do what we always do. To a 't' we did everything exactly like we do every week. It wasn't until about 10 laps into the race that I thought, 'Ooh. This might not be an ordinary Sunday at Homestead.' At that point the nerves started to come into it."
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO TAKE YOUR PLACE AMONG THE GREAT DRIVERS OF NASCAR WITH THIS CHAMPIONSHIP?
"I think it's an honor. I think the coolest part about this whole thing is that I finally did something that (A.J.) Foyt didn't do. (laughter) Most people don't realize, but the first Indy car I ever drove was for A.J. at Phoenix. It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. But it was one of the best experiences of my life too. The relationship I built with A.J. that week will last a lifetime with him and I. I never got verbally beat up as bad with anybody as I did with A.J. for five days. His favorite comment was.... When I was proud of something I did... (he'd answer) 'Just check the record books, big boy.' That was his favorite quote: 'Just check the record books.' Well, you're damn right A.J. - check the record books! He may have won Daytona and he may have won Indy, but he hasn't won an Indy car championship and a stock car championship. I finally got one up on the old man."
SPEAK TO THE GROUP OF YOUNG DRIVERS WHO ARE DOING SO WELL IN NASCAR.
"It's the same thing all you guys were talking about four years ago when I came on board. You had myself, Eliot Sadler, Kenny Irwin the year before. The year after you had Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. - Kurt Bush and whomever else. Now you've got Newman and Johnson. There are going to be more guys coming next year, and more guys the year after that. It's never going to slow down. It's the era of the young guys. I had to prove myself in a certain car to get a chance to get a better ride. That's the way it worked in Winston Cup racing at that time. Guys went from Busch, or came from ARCA or ASA and they got rides - but not good rides. Once they proved themselves they could get a better quality ride. Then some guy named Gordon cam along and showed them that a young guy in a good quality car right off the bat could contribute. That started the movement. It's the same as it's always been. Now these young guys are getting a chance. Jimmie Johnson won as many races as we did our rookie year. That record is going to get broke. Somebody's going to come in and win a lot of races as a rookie - someone is going to come in and win a championship as a rookie."
IN THE ERA OF SPECIALIZATION, WHAT DO YOU POSSESS AS A DRIVER THAT GETS YOU INTO THAT VERSATILITY STAGE LIKE GUYS THAT HAVE COME BEFORE YOU?
"It started pretty simple, to be honest. I was too lazy to work a real job. That's the God-honest truth. I was working at a machine shop for $5 an hour in the middle of the country in Rush County, Indiana. I sat in a big barn on a metal stool on a concrete floor at a drill press and was picking up parts out of a cold, five gallon bucket full of solvent and de-burring the inside of this tubing. I went out to the Copper Classic in Phoenix, the first time I went out there in a Silver Crown car and ran second to Mike Bliss out there.
"My portion of the prize money was like $3,500. I was sitting there when I came back on Monday and was sitting at that drill press. I was having to drive through snow drifts - the good thing is that you knew the road well enough...it was a good thing I actually started the job before winter came because I knew the roads. But, you were having to blow through the snow drifts just to get to and from work. I was sitting there at that drill press one day and I was trying to figure out how many $5 hours I had to work to make $3,500. I thought, 'When I drive race cars I can get up at noon, I'm at the pit gate by 4 (o'clock), I'm done at midnight and I'm still wide awake. If I can do this three nights a week and pay my bills I don't have to get up at 7:30 and drive to work and work five days a week and not be able to go to some of these races because it's too far for me to get back.' So, when I said I was too lazy to work a real job, it's the God-honest truth. It didn't take me too long to figure out I was too lazy to work.
"It doesn't mean that I've never worked. I've sealed parking lots, I've driven a two truck. I mean I've done worked some pretty terrible jobs, but they paid the bills and the people that I worked for were always willing to let me go race. I worked some jobs I didn't like, but I did them so I could still race."
Champion's press conference, part II