Tony Stewart Homestretch leads into Homestead. ATLANTA (Nov. 12, 2002) - Home Depot Pontiac driver Tony Stewart left the season-opening Daytona 500 43rd in points following an engine failure on lap two. Nine months and 35 races later, Stewart...
Homestretch leads into Homestead.
ATLANTA (Nov. 12, 2002) - Home Depot Pontiac driver Tony Stewart left the season-opening Daytona 500 43rd in points following an engine failure on lap two. Nine months and 35 races later, Stewart sits atop the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship standings carrying an 89-point lead over his only challenger - Mark Martin.
That Stewart heads into Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway having made up 42 point positions is testament to the strength of The Home Depot Racing Team.
>From their disappointment at Daytona (Fla.), they immediately bounced back with a fourth-place finish at Rockingham (N.C.), a fifth-place run at Las Vegas, and a dominating win at Atlanta. Two more wins would follow - Richmond (Va.) and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) - along with two poles, 12 top-fives and 18 top-10s.
Those numbers have allowed Stewart to take a firm hold of the championship, as a 22nd place finish at Homestead is all Stewart needs to capture his first Winston Cup title.
Seeking to solidify their point reign, Stewart and Co. tested at Homestead Nov. 4-5, posting the quickest speed of all the Winston Cup teams that tested. Stewart's fastest lap around the 1.5-mile oval came at 149.354 mph, nearly three-tenths quicker than the second fastest driver during testing. And who was that driver? It was none other than Martin, whose best lap was recorded at 149.089 mph.
Stewart's quickness should come as no surprise. He won the inaugural Winston Cup race at Homestead during his rookie year in 1999 for what was then his third career win. When he came back to Homestead as a sophomore, he notched his ninth career win. In all, Stewart has led 284 of the 801 possible laps - pacing the field nearly 35 percent of the time.
Perhaps there is no better venue than Homestead for Stewart to keep Martin and 41 other drivers at bay.
You tested at Homestead the Monday and Tuesday following the Rockingham race. How did that go?
"Homestead is a place we've run well, so for us it's a confidence boost to know that the last race of the year is one we've run well at. We won there the first two years, and dominated last year before tire problems got us. We enjoy going to Homestead, but the obvious question is 'Why do we go there to test considering how good we've been?' The answer is just as obvious - we just want to make sure we stay as good as we've been."
Has the track changed much since you were there last year?
"The track has lost a little grip, which happens to pretty much every track we go to. Some just lose a little bit more than others. The climate down there probably doesn't help, but there are no problems with the track. With Indy cars, Cup cars, Busch cars and Trucks running down there every year, it takes a little bit of grip away from us when we show up. But that's no different than any other place we go to. It's just another season on the race track."
Because Homestead is the last race of the season, does your strategy for the race change?
"When we get to Homestead we'll be points racing. The last race of the year, you points race. We haven't done that yet, but when there's no next race, you've got to pay attention to the points."
Explain a lap around Homestead.
"The biggest thing is that it's hard to make the car turn there. Then if you get the car turning well, you need to make sure it gets up off the corner. Those seem to be the two biggest challenges. If you can get the car to come off the corner well, then normally you're a little bit tight in the center. But if you can get it to turn well through the corner, then normally it's a little loose off. Trying to make the car turn and go forward at the same time is tough because the corners are so big."
You won the inaugural race at Homestead in your rookie year. It was your third win that season, a rookie record. What was that like?
"It's always special when you can win an inaugural race anywhere. To win at Homestead made me feel proud. I had run there in a Busch car a couple of times, and some of the Cup guys had run some Busch races at Homestead too. But for the most part, everyone was a rookie. Nobody had any more experience than the next guy. We were all on a level playing field. When it was all said and done, we came out on top. It was a proud day for The Home Depot team because it gave us a tremendous sense of accomplishment."
Is there another track on the Winston Cup circuit that Homestead compares to?
"I would say it's somewhat similar to Indianapolis, but the corners at Homestead seem like they're twice as long. You're in the corner a long time at Homestead and you're on the straightaways a long time. It's a pretty big race track. Having the corners as flat as they are and as long as they are makes for a big challenge in getting your car to drive well."
The Homestead race has the very real potential to be the culminating race of your Winston Cup career. You're in your fourth year as a Winston Cup driver and you've experienced a lot. Talk about that.
"You learn a lot of things, especially how to handle different things. When I joined Busch and Winston Cup, nobody handed me a freshman packet that told me 'This is how your life is going to change. This is how you have to deal with things and the obstacles you have to overcome.' And I'm not talking about things from the sanctioning body side, but from the dog-and-pony show side of things - about what is important and what needs to be taken care of."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac...
How did your test at Homestead go?
"It was pretty good. We left better than what we started with, and in fact, I think we were a little better than we were last year there as far as times and Tony being comfortable in the car. The car drove really good, pretty much hugged the white line there on the inside the way we like. So, we were pretty happy with the way we left there."
What's the most challenging aspect of making The Home Depot Pontiac handle at Homestead?
"Making the car rotate through the center of the corner without giving up any forward bite. The track changes every year, as each time we go back the track has less and less grip. Between the heat from the sun always beating down on the track and the sand blowing across the surface, the track takes a beating. To combat all that, you've got to have a well balanced race car - something that'll sit down on the track through the corners and allow you to get up off the corner good and fast."