TONY STEWART One Track Mind with One to Go ATLANTA (Nov. 15, 2006) - Five drivers are still vying for this year's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship, as only 115 points separate them with only one race remaining. Blah, blah, blah. For...
One Track Mind with One to Go
ATLANTA (Nov. 15, 2006) - Five drivers are still vying for this year's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship, as only 115 points separate them with only one race remaining.
Blah, blah, blah.
For Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team, their title hopes were officially dashed when they finished 18th at Richmond (Va.) in September, as they fell a mere 16 points short of the 10-driver cutoff for the 10-race Chase for the Championship.
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 title, the focus for Stewart and Co. will be ending the year on a high note.
In their seven previous seasons of Nextel Cup competition, the No. 20 team has never finished lower than seventh in the final point standings. Eleventh is the best the two-time and reigning series champions can do this year, a position they sewed up last Sunday at Phoenix when they posted an insurmountable 323-point lead over 12th-place Carl Edwards.
But if Stewart had made the Chase as the 11th driver via a wild card, with a total of 5,000 points heading into the first Chase race at New Hampshire - five fewer points than 10th-place Kasey Kahne - Stewart would currently be sitting second in points, 26 markers behind series leader Jimmie Johnson.
Stewart, however, has never been very interested in any kinds of what-if scenarios.
His 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.
Stewart has done a lot of that lately, winning three of the past nine Chase races to add to the two victories he scored during the regular season. As a result, he is the first non-Chase driver to win multiple Chase races, and when compared to drivers in the Chase, he has won more Chase races and scored more points.
Could Stewart add to an already impressive win total and collect his 30th career Nextel Cup victory?
The odds say yes, as the same Home Depot Chevrolet that carried Stewart to wins at Kansas, Atlanta and Texas while leading a staggering 429 of the 931 laps available (46 percent) is coming to Homestead.
While five Chase drivers chase a championship, one orange and black-clad, non-Chase driver will be chasing his fifth win of the season.
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."
How has the lack of pressure for the last 10 weeks helped you in what you're trying to accomplish at the track?
"Well, you're just concentrating on doing what you do best, and that's just going out and trying to win versus the 10 guys that are in the Chase. They're all directly worried about where the other nine guys that they're racing with are at. It just makes it easier from our standpoint that we're not worried about that. We're not worried about points. There's a race within a race every weekend for those guys, where for us it's just one simple deal. Just go out and try to win a race. It's just a lot easier."
If you had to choose between winning a bunch of races a year and winning a championship, what would you choose?
"Winning a championship and winning no races. I'd much rather win a championship every year and not win a race on the schedule. But if you're not in the Chase, what is there to go for other than wins? You still go for that every week normally, but there's nothing else for us to go for, so we might as well go for winning each week instead."
If you were in the Chase, you'd be second right now, 26 points behind the leader - Jimmie Johnson. How does that make you look at what's going on with your team and the success you're having right now?
"I'm happy. It tells me that even though we didn't get in the Chase that we're doing a good job. We're working hard at keeping our stats and everything up where we want them to be. It makes me feel good that we're doing a good job this late in the season when we don't have a championship to run for. But it's like I've told everybody from day one. We're comparing apples to oranges when it comes to what we're doing with points and what those guys are doing with points right now."
There has been talk of altering the Chase in terms of adding more drivers beyond just the top-10. Some of this talk has been spurned by your run during the Chase, because you've earned more points during the Chase than the drivers in the Chase. What do you think about that?
"The top-10 guys that got in the Chase are the ones that deserve to be running for the championship. We had bad luck and I had an injury and we had inconsistencies toward the middle of the season that kept us from getting enough points to get in the Chase. They don't need to add more spots. It would be a total injustice to the Chase if they added even one spot to this. Ten is all you need. We just missed it. Now we're hitting on things and we're talking to guys that are in the Chase and they're struggling now. Just because of what we're doing, it shouldn't affect how the Chase is done. It's there for a reason. The format is fine the way it is. The only thing they need to do is just change the way they award the points to those 10 guys those last 10 weeks."
Last year, you went into Homestead with the point lead. Obviously, it's where you want to end up, but does being the point leader make for even more stress? How do you think Jimmie Johnson feels right now?
"I don't know. Going into the last race, I'd rather be the guy that they're chasing. But when you're in the Chase, you fear mistakes. The situation they (Johnson and Co.) were in where you get wrecked the first week (at New Hampshire) and then to claw back the way they did. You can't gain any more momentum than what they had because of the situation and scenario they were in. That puts them in the driver's seat I think."
What did you do last year the week before the last race of the season when you had a championship on the line?
"I went home. My favorite thing to do is to go home and be around my friends and my property. I did that until I absolutely had to leave to go to Florida. I don't know what Jimmie (Johnson) did this week, but my recommendation to him was to go and do whatever your favorite thing is to do away from the race track and have fun this week. The more relaxed you are going into this weekend, the better off you'll be."
Were you better prepared to clinch the championship last year at Homestead because of your experience when you ran for your first championship in 2002?
"We were so busy the first time, because we were never in that position. Granted, there wasn't a Chase then. There were only about three or four of us at that time that were even a factor. Then when the Chase came around, obviously it was a little different deal, because there were still four or five of us mathematically eligible for it. It's just one of those situations where what we learned from previous championships in the IRL and USAC and all of these other things, you can mentally drain yourself before you even get to that point. The way to combat that is to go out and do your favorite things and go have fun and enjoy the time that you have home before you have to go."
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."