TONY STEWART, NO. 20 HOME DEPOT PONTIAC GRAND PRIX: LAST WEEKEND, JEFF GORDON ADVISED YOU TO GET AWAY THIS WEEK - NOT READ THE PAPERS, NOT WATCH TV - JUST RELAX...HAVE YOU BEEN FOLLOWING THAT ADVICE ALL YEAR LONG? "Yeah, honestly I have. I...
TONY STEWART, NO. 20 HOME DEPOT PONTIAC GRAND PRIX:
LAST WEEKEND, JEFF GORDON ADVISED YOU TO GET AWAY THIS WEEK - NOT READ THE PAPERS, NOT WATCH TV - JUST RELAX...HAVE YOU BEEN FOLLOWING THAT ADVICE ALL YEAR LONG?
"Yeah, honestly I have. I quit reading the papers a long time ago. I watch a little bit of the TV, but for the most part, just learned to do my own thing and do what makes me happy and go racing. That's what I enjoy doing on the weekends is racing. I concentrate more on the racing aspect of it and not worry about all the other stuff."
WHAT IS THE MOST VALUABLE THING YOU HAVE LEARNED THIS YEAR AS A RACER WITH REGARD TO HANDLING THE PRESSURE OF COMPETING FOR A CHAMPIONSHIP?
"Concentrate on the race team and the rest of it just doesn't seem to matter. That's been the one thing. The biggest thing is that race team is my family. Spending time concentrating on the car and the team has been more important than dealing with all the other outside distractions. Just learning how to not have to deal with the outside distractions and, at the same time, spend more time with the race team and worrying about the race cars."
HOW HAS ALL THE PREVIOUS CHAMPIONSHIP EXPERIENCE IN AND AROUND YOUR RACE TEAM HELPED YOU HANDLE PRESSURE THIS YEAR?
"I think the biggest thing is what you just mentioned - pressure. To me, I don't feel any pressure, in all reality. I've been in this situation multiple times. In '95 we won three USAC championships in the same year. We won the midget championship in '94 and, obviously, the IRL championship in '97. After you deal with so many championships like that, you learn how to deal with it. Worrying is not going to do anything. Feeling pressure - there is not pressure. I feel like I have the best shot at winning, over the last six or eight races, at Homestead, considering our track record there. We had a tire problem last year that kept us from winning three in a row there. But, if we just go out and do what we typically have done and what we've always done, I don't think we'll have to worry about anything this weekend. We've just got to go out and race hard. I'm sticking to the plan that I've said every week for the last five or six weeks. We're not changing anything. I'm going to race to win and the rest of it will have to take care of itself. Just concentrating on the job at hand is enough of a task to keep you from worrying about the rest of it."
ON THE ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES THAT GO ALONG WITH BEING A WINSTON CUP CHAMPION
"To be honest - maybe I'm wrong in this - the last time I checked we were racing for a points championship. I don't think I'm running for political office. I'm sure there are obligations that require our time, but as far as that is concerned, I'm not doing anything but trying to race for a points championship. That is done strictly off what you do on the racetrack. Maybe there is more to it than that - I don't know. But, the last time I checked it is 36 races and whoever gets the most points in 36 races is the champion. It's not an elected office. I've not been told of any quote-unquote responsibilities. If everybody is going to make it a lot more complicated I'm going to be pretty disappointed, to be perfectly honest."
ON THE POINTS SYSTEM
"I think the points system is a very fair system. It's in the best interest of the race fans that are out there and it rewards consistency. Just about every series that I've ever been a part of it, that's the way they've all been. I think NASCAR has done a really good job in 50-plus years of coming up with a points system and points structure that rewards teams for their consistency. If the points structure was different to where an emphasis was placed strictly on winning or finishing in the top five or six spots, I think you'd see a lot of good race car drivers and race cars get crashed in the last five or 10 laps of a race because of the added importance and degree of trying to extra points there at the end. None of the race fans want to walk away at the end of the day, after they've spent their hard-earned money to come watch us race - leave, knowing that they didn't get to see us run the last 10 laps. I think it's a pretty fair system the way it is."
WHICH OF THE THREE USAC TITLES IN '95 WAS THE TOUGHEST TO WIN?
"Actually the toughest of them was the Silver Crown Series. We actually locked up the sprint car series first. Then, we went to Sacramento, Calif. The Silver Crown title was the second of the three was the second of the three, but it was the most difficult of the three, from the standpoint that we were basically a long-shot going into that last race. There were three of us in that battle still that mathematically had a chance. Basically, they both had to finish outside the top 14 and I had to finish in the top two. Both of those guys did finish outside the top 14 and I finished second and won by two points, I believe."
ON THE ATTENTION THAT IS PAID TO THE WINSTON CUP CHAMPIONSHIP BATTLE, AS COMPARED TO THE OTHER CHAMPIONSHIPS YOU'VE COMPETED FOR
"It's definitely a championship that is covered by a lot more media and there are a lot more race fans involved in this series. With that, it's about the same. It's just everything seems to be bigger this time. But, like I say, the distractions are a lot greater. You just have to learn how to eliminate the distractions to the best of your ability and concentrate on the job at hand."
WHAT IS IT THAT YOU LOVE SO MUCH ABOUT DRIVING A RACE CAR THAT MAKES EVERYTHING ELSE WORTH IT?
"I've raced for 23 years, to be honest. I love it for the same reason that I did when I was eight years old. When I was eight years old it was cool because I was the only kid on the block that got to race a go-kart that went 50 miles an hour, let alone drive anything. That was the fun part.
"It's just knowing that you're out there competing with 42 other guys and just trying to go faster than they do. That is what it has always been about. It always seem to amaze me in this day and age how everybody wants to make more out of it than what it is. It's a sport that we have. It's a fascinating sport, and it always boils down to one thing, and that is trying to be faster and get to the finish line before anybody else does. Everybody else wants to try to make it more than it is. Just knowing that we did a better job that day than anybody else is what has always kept me excited about racing."
IS THERE ANY TRACK THAT YOU WOULD BE MORE COMFORTABLE ENDING YOUR SEASON AT THIS YEAR BESIDES HOMESTEAD?
"That's probably part of the reason that it's taken a lot of the pressure off, too. Our past history before Winston Cup was actually terrible. In the Busch series I ran very poorly there. But, it seemed like once I got into the Winston Cup series, the difference in wheel bases and horsepower, and having a different team and crew and car, there is something about that track that has just been magic for us. We went ahead and saved a test late in the season to go ahead and go back to Homestead. We went back last Monday and Tuesday and ran, and was extremely excited about the way our test went. The car feels very comfortable. I think we left that test - according to the media - we were the fastest car down there after testing. It's something that gives me even more confidence when we go back down there. Knowing our past history of our record at the track and how we've run there - I mean, we've led more laps than anybody by far, so I'm pretty excited about going back down there this weekend."
HOW DO YOU EXPECT THE OTHER DRIVERS OUT THE CHAMPIONSHIP HUNT TO RACE YOU THIS WEEKEND?
"I hope they race just as hard as they always do. This is just one of 36 races. We all have to race hard. If 43 guys don't race to win this weekend, I'll be very disappointed. I don't expect anything to change. I have a responsibility with what I do in my car this weekend, due to circumstances. To be honest, I don't expect anybody else to change the way they race. I'd be disappointed if they did."
ARE YOU HAPPY RIGHT NOW AS YOU WERE WHEN YOU WON YOUR OTHER TITLES?
"I don't know. I haven't won the title, yet, this year. Yeah, I'm very close, but, at the same time, I could lose it and that's what I've been trying to tell all of you all along - that this isn't done, yet. You guys, six weeks ago, started talking about something that was so far off that I couldn't believe I was answering questions about it at the time and, to be honest, I still don't. I realize with what our circumstances are this weekend, it's more realistic. But, this is something that I was hoping I'd be answering this coming Sunday after the race was over, instead of now. These are kinds of questions that I think jinx somebody like myself in a situation like this.
"Yeah, I'm happy. If I wasn't happy, I wouldn't be here. I made my father a promise a long time ago when we started racing that the day I wasn't happy doing this anymore, I would quit. I still plan on fulfilling that obligation to my father. I love driving these cars. I love racing with the guys I race with. The crew guys that we race with every week, the car owners, the officials that NASCAR has at the speedways on the weekends - they make this series a lot of fun. Sure, there are a lot of things that I still don't understand and there are a lot of things that I still don't agree with. But, there is somebody else that does understand it and somebody else that does see a bigger picture than what I do a lot of times. With that, things do become a lot more clear. But, like I say, I'm a simple person.
"To me, it's about driving a race car and trying to win races. In this series, it's a lot more complicated than that and that is also what has made it as big as it is nowadays. I think it's all right that I don't understand everything and don't agree with everything. Like I say, I just try to keep it simple."
AT 17 OR 18 YEARS OLD, IF SOMEONE HAD TOLD YOU THAT YOU WOULD BE ON THE VERGE OF WINNING A CHAMPIONSHIP, WOULD YOU HAVE FIGURED IT TO BE A NASCAR TITLE OR AN INDY CAR TITLE?
"Neither, to be perfectly honest. I would have thought it would have been in midgets or sprint cars. Every race car driver dreams of being in the position we're in right now. When I was growing up and in high school, I was still racing go-karts until I graduated high school. My goal - I thought if I ever reached sprint cars or midget racing in Indiana, that was going to be a great accomplishment for me in my life. But, I obviously had no clue what my future was going to hold. For someone to tell me I was going to win three national championships in one year in midgets and sprint cars and Silver Crown cars and be lucky enough to not only compete at the Indianapolis 500, but to start from the pole my first year and to have an opportunity to win a championship (IRL) in '97 and now, even greater than that, to have the opportunity to try to compete and try to win a Winston Cup championship - I never could have dreamed that - ever. Not in my wildest dreams after I ate spicy foods at night could I have ever dreamed that I was going to be in the position we're in now. I'm just thankful. The one that is important to me that I think you guys understand is that all my career I've been very, very fortunate to be surrounded by good people. When I say that, it doesn't mean that I always had the best ride, but I was always driving for people that cared about me as a person, that did the very best they could with what they had - and dealing with people that poured their hearts and souls and had the same ambition for racing that I've had.
"Greg [Zipadelli] is the one person that has probably been the driving force behind us being where we are. He has been a much larger leader in our race team than I have. Joe has always tried to convince Bobby [Labonte] and I that we're like the quarterbacks of the team and that Greg is the coach. But, in all reality, I've always felt like Greg was the strongest person of our race team and the greatest asset that we have. I feel very fortunate to not only drive for him, but he is one of my best friends. Like I mentioned earlier with all the other people I've ever been associated with in racing, he cares more about me as a person that he does a race car driver. Joe has always had the same approach. That's not an attitude that you see with a lot of car owners or crews. You're a piece of property at this level to a lot of people. The one thing about Joe and especially Zippy is that they care about me more as 'Tony Stewart, the human being' than 'Tony Stewart the race car driver. That is something that I've been very, very proud of. The relationship I have with those people is something I'm going to cherish for the rest of my life, regardless of what happens this weekend."