Note: Tony Stewart became the first NASCAR Winston Cup driver to win three races in his rookie season when he emerged victorious in the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday. Stewart is fourth in the point standings and ranks ...
Note: Tony Stewart became the first NASCAR Winston Cup driver to win three races in his rookie season when he emerged victorious in the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday. Stewart is fourth in the point standings and ranks second in laps led (1,222) and miles run (12,500.73 of 12,743.95).
TONY STEWART (No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix): "We set two realistic goals at the beginning of the season and that was to try and qualify for each race and the second one, obviously, was to try and finish as many laps as possible each race day from the standpoint that you can't simulate those conditions in a test session. We definitely exceeded those goals and everything else has sort of been like icing on the cake for us this year."
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO BE COMPARED TO SOMEONE LIKE DAVEY ALLISON OR DALE EARNHARDT? "It's been a great honor. Any time you can be mentioned in the same sentence with those guys, it really makes you think, 'Am I really doing what these people think I am doing?' The biggest thing is that it's a great honor to be compared to those people. They've done so much for this sport that if I can do half of what they've done I think I'll have had a successful year in NASCAR."
IS IT FEASIBLE TO START THINKING ABOUT A CHAMPIONSHIP NEXT YEAR? "I don't know. I think we'll look at it halfway through the season next year and see what position we're in. We've only had one DNF and that's because we ran out of fuel on the last lap and couldn't coast around and finish that lap. Having only the one DNF and the fact that we haven't had a lot of accidents this year, we've been very fortunate to have the season we've had. You never know what can happen next year. We could have a lot of motor failures or we could get into a lot of accidents we didn't get into this year that could turn the whole season around, so we'll just wait and see."
SURPRISED THAT THINGS HAVE GONE AS WELL FOR THE TEAM THIS SEASON CONSIDERING YOU AND GREG ZIPADELLI ARE ROOKIES THIS SEASON? "I was a lot surprised. I never doubted Greg's talent. I knew what Greg's credentials were when he got to the series. I knew what his background was at Roush Racing and knew that Bobby, Jimmy Makar and Joe Gibbs highly recommended him. Knowing those three were behind him, I didn't have any doubt about his talent. This is my 20th season (in racing) and I've worked with a lot of crew chiefs and a lot of mechanics on race teams and the communication factor is always the biggest factor when you work with a new guy. The way that Greg and I communicate and the way we started the season off, it really surprised me how well we worked together. It seemed like we had worked together all our lives."
HOW INSTRUMENTAL IS JOE GIBBS TO THIS TEAM'S SUCCESS? "He's a great leader and I don't know why he always downplays that and why I don't know. It's his football coaching background that shines through every week. Every time we have a team meeting he's got everybody at their utmost attention. Even though he's been a coach in the past, he doesn't tell us how to run the race team. He knows how to keep us pumped up about what we're doing and knows how to keep us focused about what jobs and tasks we have ahead of us. That leadership quality really shines through. Greg Zipadelli and Jimmy Makar take it from there."
HAS THIS YEAR BEEN MORE DIFFICULT THAN IT LOOKS FROM THE OUTSIDE? "We've had some hurdles to overcome this year. In your rookie season there's a lot of things to adjust to. I've had my temper get in the way a couple of times this year where it has affected what we've done on the race track. Those are hurdles that show what a great race team is all about. It shows the caliber of team you have when you're able to overcome those disappointments and those bad races to come back and have the kind of season we've had in the latter half, especially these last two weeks. I think it shows we've got a team that in the near future is going to be capable of running for a championship, hopefully."
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE ONGOING CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS WITH JOE? "It's going very well. Joe and I have always seen eye to eye on everything. We're just making sure all the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed. I wouldn't have a problem signing a lifetime agreement with him because I feel like I'm in a very good situation with a very good race team with a very good leader right now. It's going to cost him to sign me up for life (laughing), but I don't mind doing that. Joe's been a great person and a great influence in my life, not only in the race car, but outside the race car. I feel like I couldn't ask for any more than with the team I'm with right now."
TALK ABOUT THE CONVERSATION YOU HAD WITH BOBBY LABONTE AFTER THE INCIDENT SUNDAY. "It went real well, actually. Bobby was getting ready to go ride bikes with his son and I basically just wanted him to know that I realized I had made a mistake and that is wasn't anything intentional and he knew that. He knew that when I called. We wanted to make sure we were both on the same page and it was important to me that he knew that it wasn't something intentional and that I did learn something from it. His feelings were as long as I did learn something from it that's all that mattered to him. We're ready to go on. We both race cars. I think Bobby would be disappointed in me if I didn't race him hard. It's just something that we were both very fortunate that I didn't cause a big accident out there. The best thing about it is that it was my teammate there that caught me. He had the skill and talent that we both didn't crash. We talked about it and he explained to me how he thought it should be handled in the future and I agreed. I wasn't as patient as I needed to be there. I got a little too impatient. Bobby's been the one person that's probably taught me the most about patience this year. Talking to him gave me a perspective of how to handle that situation in the future."
JOE GIBBS, owner (No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix): "Who would have thought at the beginning of the year that Bobby Labonte would have had a legitimate chance to run for the championship and run as good as his has all year and be there sitting second in points? That's been a thrill for us. It's been by far the best year we've had with the 18 car and Bobby. When we did our incentives for Home Depot we were sitting there and I was saying, 'Eighteenth would be miraculous for the first year in points.' We accomplished those incentives in about seven races. I felt like Tony was going to be upfront in a flash and have a chance to run up front quite a bit, but none of us dreamed he'd win a race. That's so hard to do. I don't think any of us dreamed we'd be in the top-10 in points, certainly not the top-five. It's just been a fantastic year. We've been blessed here and the season has been one that we hadn't dreamed of. It's kind of like a dream season for us."
HOW CAN THE TEAM IMPROVE NEXT YEAR AND HOW DO YOU TEMPER YOUR TWO DRIVERS FROM HAVING THINGS HAPPEN BETWEEN THEM LIKE SUNDAY'S INCIDENT? "If you take Tony's car, it's been miraculous where he's missed wrecks and stuff. We've had an awful good motor program this year and we all know oftentimes you can struggle in that area. The problem for next year is that you can't predict it. We're going to enjoy this year and if we finish fourth that's something we're certainly going to relish. As far as the incident this weekend, I look at it this way and all of us at our team meeting this morning had the same feeling here. That is we have two drivers that are competitive as anybody that's ever raced race cars and that's what we want. It's fun for us to sit there and watch them. We hope they're going to run up front in a bunch of races, so can you have something like this to happen? Yeah. I know they talked that over and hopefully, they've got a gameplan where the next time they're up there beating and banging, we find a way to keep it from being a situation where we could wreck a car."
DO YOU EXPECT THE PONTIACS TO GET HIT WITH A RULES CHANGE? "As far as the Pontiacs go, the way I look at it is first of all, I think the most important thing is the points race. In the points race this year there's three Pontiacs in (the top-10). There are three Chevys and four Fords. So as far as I'm concerned, that's pretty darned close. When it comes to who has won the most races, the best Chevrolet has won seven, that's Gordon, and if he doesn't blow out a front-tire a couple of times he probably would have won his usual nine or 10. The best Ford has won six and the best Pontiac has won four. What upsets you a little bit, when the Pontiac does make a move here, and it's not only us it's the 22 and the 43 that have run really well at times this year, it's kind of thrown on, 'Well, the Pontiac has more spoiler.' What they need to remember is what NASCAR said from the wind tunnel that this Pontiac needed more spoiler because it didn't match up with a Chevy or a Ford. Now that we're winning races, everybody starts pointing at our spoiler. It kind of upsets you when you run your guts out for eight years and you run good and somebody starts pointing to a spoiler. We've sat here and had some cars win nine, 10 a year, and you say, 'That was some great races he's had.' But that always happens in NASCAR. It's just something you have to live with. We're going to leave that up to NASCAR to keep the cars equal and we're just going to keep racing them as hard as we can."