TONY STEWART Act Like You've Been There ATLANTA (Nov. 15, 2005) - When approaching a big game, football coaches implore their players to "act like you've been there." For Joe Gibbs Racing and those associated with the ...
Act Like You've Been There
ATLANTA (Nov. 15, 2005) - When approaching a big game, football coaches implore their players to "act like you've been there." For Joe Gibbs Racing and those associated with the #20 Home Depot Racing Team, there's no need to act. They have been there.
A championship is on the line with Sunday's Ford 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the final stop on the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule. Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, leads the point standings by 52 markers over his nearest pursuer Jimmie Johnson. Nine is Stewart's magic number, for a ninth-place finish secures the title even if Johnson leads the most laps and wins the race.
It's a familiar scenario for Stewart, crew chief Greg Zipadelli and the rest of the #20 team. They won the championship in 2002, beating Mark Martin by 38 points. And just as they control their destiny this weekend, Stewart and Zipadelli controlled their destiny in 2002.
Three years ago the duo entered the season finale at Homestead with an 89-point lead over Martin, with their magic number being a 22nd place finish. The resulting 18th place finish wasn't pretty, but it did the job, as Stewart, Zipadelli and the rest of The Home Depot Racing Team celebrated the second championship for car owner Joe Gibbs since Bobby Labonte won the title in 2000.
It was Stewart's first NASCAR championship and his ninth driving title since racing go-karts competitively at age eight. For Zipadelli, it was his first Cup Series championship but his third NASCAR title as a crew chief, having won a NASCAR Busch North Series championship with Mike Stefanik in 1997 and a NASCAR Modified Series championship with Mike McLaughlin in 1988.
Stewart's titles include the 1997 IRL IndyCar Series championship, the 1995 United States Auto Club (USAC) "Triple Crown" where Stewart won the USAC Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown divisions in the same year, the 1994 USAC Midget championship, the 1987 World Karting Association national championship, the 1983 International Karting Federation grand national championship and the 1980 4-cycle rookie junior class championship at the Columbus (Ind.) Fairgrounds.
Together, 12 championships have been earned by Stewart and Zipadelli. And in all those championship runs in all those different series, the tactics employed to win races and earn as many points as possible through the course of a season didn't all of a sudden change when the final race was upon them. Their preparation was the same. Their car's setup was the same. Their pit crew's over-the-wall choreography was the same.
With a series-leading five wins, 17 top-fives and 25 top-10s - 19 of which have come in the last 21 races - expect the same methodology from The Home Depot Racing Team that was employed at the previous 35 races this weekend at Homestead. The adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," could never be more appropriate than now. And Stewart and Zipadelli should know, because they've been there.
Did you expect the title to be decided at Homestead and not earlier in the Chase?
"That's the way it was last year. With a 10-race stretch, I think it's always going to come down to Homestead. But nobody is going to be able to say that Homestead was the deciding factor. It's all 10 that make it what it is. But when you're in that battle at the end, you want to make sure Homestead's a place you feel strong going into."
What would make this championship different from the one you won in 2002?
"I can promise you, I want this championship worse than the rest of the drivers do. A lot of them have not won a championship yet, so people are going to ask how come I want it more. The one we won in 2002 kind of had an asterisk with the team. It was just not a clean year. We had a lot of turmoil and trouble amongst ourselves internally. I created a lot of turmoil with things that happened on and off the track. This is one I want to win for Greg Zipadelli more than the rest of the competition can possibly imagine. It doesn't mean we're going to win it, but if they're going to win it, they're going to have to take it from me.
"We've been through this deal once before. We kind of know what to expect. We're not controlling the whole Chase. But we are controlling the side of it that we can, and that's with our car. That's what made it so easy for us. You look at the other teams and they're all focusing on what we're doing. We like that. We want them to do that. That lets us focus on what we're doing and not on what they're doing. The experience of going through it before gave us the opportunity to learn how to focus on what we're doing and not worry about everybody else."
What would it mean to win the championship this year with no distractions off the track?
"It would mean everything to me. That's why I want to win so badly this year. 2002 was probably one of the worst personal years of my life, even though it was one of the most gratifying professional years of my life. It'll mean 10 times more if we can do it this year with the way the year has been. It think the entire team will enjoy it more with the way that it's gone this year."
What is your attitude going into the season finale?
"I sound like a broken record, but this week is not going to be any different from any other week. We're in the same position we were in before the Chase started, and it's really going to boil down to something as simple as going out and doing the same things the same way we did to get ourselves in the lead. We're not watching where everybody else is. The best thing for us to do is just sit there and do what got us here in the first place. We'll do what we need to do on our car. We don't have to make something happen. Everybody else has to make something happen. It's best for us just to do what got us here. I hate for it to sound that simple, but that's honestly how it has to be right now."
Do you feel that the #20 team has set the bar and that it's everyone else who has to measure up?
"I don't know if I feel like we've set the standard. We can only control 10 percent of this scenario, because there are nine other guys involved. So, I didn't worry about trying to control the whole situation. I really just focused on controlling what we were in control of, and that was controlling our whole team. I've tried to make sure that my team has fun, and all year the results have come. That's the stuff I've wanted to keep focusing on - keeping everybody close knit and keeping them from focusing on what everybody else is doing."
You've had top-10 finishes in 19 of the last 21 races. To what do you attribute that consistency?
"It seems like when you find a piece of the equation that works for you, it seems like it works for you at a lot of places. It's a real compliment to our race team that no matter if it's a half-mile track or a two-and-a-half-mile superspeedway or a road course or a mile-and-a-half or a mile oval, we've been able to be consistent. That shows that our team is pretty well-rounded. It's not really one thing that you can put your finger on, it's really a combination of things that all came together at once."
Your second-place finish at Michigan in June, was that the turning point for the #20 team this year?
"I believe so. We had a test there the week before the race and we left that test in a very positive frame of mind. We'd finally stumbled on some things that other teams had found. Even though we finished second, I was disappointed just because I couldn't figure out how in putting on four tires there at the end that I still got beat. But when we left there we were very excited thinking that we were finally getting ourselves caught up and getting on the right track. So I feel it was a turning point for us."
Is it seven years of Nextel Cup experience that's allowed you to know when to push for position and when to settle for what you have?
"I'm not sure when actually I realized all that. I think it's just common sense to know that if you make a mistake and don't finish, it's worse than losing one or two spots because you just don't have the car that's going to get it done that day. It's just something that's always made sense to us. If you wreck the car trying to maintain a spot or get a spot that you think you need, it's risk versus reward. The risk outweighs the reward at that point. A lot of times it's just easier to let one spot go if you have to, and either wait for the next pit stop or realize that's just all we have for that day. At Texas, I didn't want Jimmie (Johnson) to get by us, but at the same time I knew I couldn't hold him off, and trying to hold him off would've risked crashing the car or making a mistake in front of him that was either going to take me out or both of us out. So it was just smarter to let him go knowing he was faster at that point and that we weren't fast enough to hold him off. I was just trying to be smart about it."
Your two wins at Homestead came when the track was flat. Last year's race was the second with the new banking. Is it still a strong venue for you?
"We were awesome there when it was flat. Two years ago, they banked the track. And last year, we led the race, got black-flagged, went to the back and drove right back to the front and took the lead again. It was two different race tracks, but at the same time we were still strong and dominant there. So, hopefully this year will be the same."
Explain a lap around Homestead.
"You go off into turn one, and when you get into the banking you lift. If your car is good, you can go and not use any brake, or very, very little brake. You stay one lane off the bottom, past the transition - it's a little less banking on the lower level toward the apron - so you stay one level above that. As soon as your car settles in you can really just mash right back in the gas and just ride that second level around down onto the backstretch. And then you do exactly the same thing going into turn three. A lot of times in turn three, because of the wind direction there, you can actually go into the corner a lot harder and a lot further, actually turning into the corner before you get off the gas. And it's the same thing, once that car settles in you get on the gas and ride it around to the frontstretch. It's a pretty smooth race track."