Tony Stewart One Track Mind with One to Go ATLANTA (Nov. 16, 2004) - The top four drivers still vying for this year's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship are separated by only 72 points, the closest four-way scramble with only one race ...
One Track Mind with One to Go
ATLANTA (Nov. 16, 2004) - The top four drivers still vying for this year's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship are separated by only 72 points, the closest four-way scramble with only one race remaining in modern NASCAR history.
Blah, blah, blah.
For Tony Stewart and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team, their title hopes - however much on the ropes - were officially dashed following their 17th place finish last Sunday at Darlington (S.C.). So while the focus heading into this Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be on who will lay claim to this year's championship, the focus for Stewart and Co. will be ending the year on a high note.
In their five previous seasons of Nextel Cup competition, the #20 team has never finished lower than seventh in the season-ending point standings. They're assured of at least seventh this year, but they could climb as high as fourth if fifth-place Mark Martin and fourth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. have mutually abysmal races while Stewart finishes well enough to gain a minimum of 114 points.
Stewart, however, has never been very interested in any kinds of what-if scenarios.
Stewart's world is as black and white as the checkered flags he's been chasing since he first wheeled a go-kart at the age of seven in Westport, Ind. There are no grey areas. And so he goes into Sunday's Ford 400 at the 1.5-mile Homestead oval with only one thing on his mind - winning.
In 211 Nextel Cup starts dating back to Feb. 14, 1999, Stewart has won 19 times. He has two wins in 2004 - Chicagoland on July 11 and Warkins Glen (N.Y.) on Aug. 15. In the 14 races since the win at The Glen, the #20 team has sought career win #20, with the closest finishes being back-to-back sixth-place results at Dover (Del.) and Talladega (Ala.) on Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, respectively. Three other top-10s have also been had in this 10-race chase for the championship, but none yielded any trophies. Only wins do that - the only thing The Home Depot Racing Team truly wants this Sunday at Homestead.
How stressful can the last race of the year be, knowing that you only have one last shot to gain as many points as possible?
"You have to treat it just like any other race. Obviously, where you're at in the point standings after Homestead is where you've finished for the season. But you can't treat the race any differently. You just have to go out there and do the best you can and not take too many unnecessary chances. You have to be cautiously aggressive. You have to race hard to get everything you can get, but with the thought in the back of your mind being that you can't do anything that's going to jeopardize you finishing the race. Taking a chance to gain one position might cost you 20 or 30 spots if it doesn't work."
Knowing the pressure that comes with being in championship contention entering Homestead, will you enjoy the last race of the season simply because there is no pressure?
"Trust me, I'd much rather have the pressure of being the point leader, or even remotely close to the point leader. But being where we are does take a little bit of that edge off. Still, I'd much rather be right there in the middle of the championship knowing that we've got a shot of winning it. Pressure is a part of this business, and we're all used to it by now."
With the Chase almost complete, what do you think of the new playoff-style points format?
"It seemed to do what NASCAR wanted it to do and that's raise the level of fan interest. I haven't really had an opinion about this whole chase since the season began and I really don't have one now. This is the point structure we're racing under, it's the same for everybody, and at the end somebody's going to win a championship. It is what it is."
How was the racing last year at Homestead?
"I thought it was good. I was real surprised. We started the weekend running in the middle of the race track and by the end of the weekend we were running in the middle and at the bottom. The track seemed to be very driver-friendly, and now with a year of weathering it'll probably be even better."
Were there multiple grooves and were you able to move around on the race track, like you do at Michigan?
"The groove wasn't quite that wide, but at least there were multiple grooves, and that's something that's typically hard to come by on a new race track."
Is Homestead like any other race track on the circuit, or is it an entity all its own?
"It's pretty much a track of its own. I can't really think of any other track that we go to that's like Homestead."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
You and the team tested at Homestead Nov. 9-10. How did it go and how has the race track changed since you were there a year ago?
"The track was really similar to the way it was last year. We were tight throughout the test and we were tight when we raced there last year. The track seemed to not have a lot of grip, but for the most part we didn't really have many issues when we were there testing. We were just trying to work on getting the car to turn. By the time we left we were fairly happy with The Home Depot Chevrolet. We were as good as most of the other teams that tested there."
Will we see multiple racing grooves at this year's Ford 400?
"You'll probably see one car follow the other. It just seemed like as fast you ran and as hard as it was to pass guys even when you ran them down that there will probably be a lot of single-file racing. But you never know. There will be a bunch of rubber laid down on the race track after they run the Truck race and the Busch race and all the respective practice sessions, so by the time we get to our race there might very well be more side-by-side racing because all that rubber might actually build in a couple more racing grooves.
"The groove - the fast way around the race track - is right in the middle of the race track. It's not like the bottom is the fast way or the top is the fast way like it is at Atlanta where you can go either way and still run fast. You've got to run right in the middle, and if you get above it, we watched people for two days during our test session chase their cars up the race track. And there's not enough room on the bottom to race a guy."
Which Homestead do you prefer - the old layout or the new layout?
"I liked the old one because everything had to be right to have a good car. They said you couldn't pass, but if your car was good you could go to the bottom of the race track and go where other people couldn't. The new layout is almost like Martinsville (Va.), where they did too good of a job of fixing the race track. They made it easy for everyone to run fast."