Kansas: Tony Stewart preview

ATLANTA (Oct. 3, 2005) - From Redskins Park to Huntersville (N.C.) Business Park, life is good for Joe Gibbs. The coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins is off to a 3-0 start, the first time since 1991 when Gibbs' Redskins won their last Super...

ATLANTA (Oct. 3, 2005) - From Redskins Park to Huntersville (N.C.) Business Park, life is good for Joe Gibbs.

The coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins is off to a 3-0 start, the first time since 1991 when Gibbs' Redskins won their last Super Bowl. And back at his race shop in Huntersville, Gibbs' #20 Home Depot Racing Team is leading the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series point standings. Driver Tony Stewart has a four-point advantage over second-place Ryan Newman, and the last time Stewart sat atop the point standings this late into the 36-race season was in 2002, the year he clinched his first NASCAR championship.

As Gibbs' Redskins travel to Denver to take on the Broncos, his Home Depot Racing Team travels to Kansas City, Kan. They won't be there to check up on the Chiefs - Gibbs' next opponent after facing Denver - but they will be there to post another mark in the win column, albeit with a 3,400-pound race car instead of a 340-pound bruiser. (One actually exists - 345-pound Derrick Dockery, a second-year Redskins guard out of the University of Texas).

Stewart and Co. will attempt their win on the not yet frozen tundra of Kansas Speedway, home to Sunday's Banquet 400.

The 1.5-mile Kansas oval has been a solid venue for Stewart, as he's posted one top-five and three top-10s in his four career starts. His lone finish outside of the top-10 was a 14th place effort in last year's race.

While no wins have been posted by Stewart at Kansas, its sister track - Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. - is another story. Its 1.5-mile layout is nearly identical to Kansas', and its there where Stewart has notched a win, a pole, a second, a third, and a fifth in his most recent visit there in July.

That string of success, however, pales in comparison to the summer hot streak Stewart has taken right into autumn. In his last 15 races dating back to Michigan on June 19, Stewart has logged only one finish outside of the top-10 - an 18th place result at Dover (Del.) two weeks ago. The other finishes? Five wins, a trio of seconds, a trio of fifths, two sevenths and an eighth to give Stewart an average finish of fourth.

Consistency is the name of the game when it comes to winning a championship, and Stewart and Co. have it, as evidenced by their second-place finish last Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) where they led 11 times for a race high 65 laps - the 10th time this season where they've led the most laps.

As the Banquet 400 nears, Gibbs' #20 brigade sees it as another opportunity toward prime seating at another feast - the 2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Awards Banquet.

After restrictor plate racing at Talladega, are you looking forward to racing at Kansas?

"Absolutely. What you do at Kansas is solely based on what you and your team can do with your race car, not what drafting line you're in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move. There are too many variables out of your control in a plate race. At Kansas, we're back in control. There are still things out there that can screw up your day, but they're minimal when compared to what we dealt with at Talladega."

No more restrictor plate races, no more road courses and only one short track left on the schedule. With the exception of Martinsville (Va.), all of the tracks the Nextel Cup Series visits are intermediate-type ovals. How would you assess your chances for the rest of the year?

"Historically we've been good at the kinds of tracks we'll be seeing for the rest of the season. But from one week to the next, things can change. Historically, we've run really well at Dover, but when we were there two weeks ago we were terrible. There are no guarantees that we're going to be good everywhere we go. We have to go out and do our job. There's nothing that's going to be given to us. We've got to go out and earn it the next seven weeks."

Does the Chase point system change the way you race?

"Not at all. We take each race one week at a time just like we've done every other season. You can't be worrying about the points. If you do your job each week and try to win the race, it's like I've always said, the points will take care of themselves - no matter what the format is. If you change what you're doing just to adjust to the Chase points system, I think you're going to run into trouble. If you always try to win, then that means you're always trying to get as many points as possible. I don't know why anyone would go away from that."

There were a handful of Chase drivers who had bad performances last week at Talladega and two weeks ago at Dover. Can a driver afford to have a mulligan, or are the majority of the Chase drivers performing well enough that no Chase driver can afford to have a sub-par finish?

"Mulligans are in golf. This is racing. We don't have mulligans here. You have what you have. A mulligan is when you don't have to count what you did. If Dover was a mulligan, then we don't have to count that week's points, right? So there are no such things as mulligans in auto racing.

"If everybody has a bad week, then everybody can afford to have a mulligan, I guess. But if half the field has a bad week and the other five guys stay in the top-five every race, you can't afford it. You just don't know. It's hard to say. At the end of the year you can evaluate it. But it's so unpredictable right now. You just don't know what's going to happen with the guys at the front of the pack. If they don't have any problems, you're not going to be able to afford it. But if everybody has one bad week, then everybody can afford one. That way it sets everybody even again."

Is there a time when a driver who has had some poor runs needs to go into catch-up mode?

"Yeah, the season finale at Homestead (Fla.). You can ask me that question after we run Sunday and the answer may be totally different. It's strictly a week-to-week deal. All of the questions the media is asking are all theoretical questions. Well, I'm not a philosopher. None of us can predict this. If we could, we'd be bookies in Las Vegas making millions of dollars betting on these races instead of driving in them. And it's a heck of a lot safer sitting in a chair in that dark room letting cocktail waitresses bring you drinks. I don't have the answers. Nobody has the answers. All we can do is speculate on what's going to happen until each week actually happens. So, all we can do is guess on what's going to happen. If any of us can predict the top-10 positions in Sunday's race - you're a genius, let alone figuring out how the next seven weeks are going to be."

You and Ryan Newman are 1-2 in the point standings and you both came to NASCAR from USAC. Is it more than coincidence that two USAC drivers are 1-2 in the points?

"Watching Ryan last week at Talladega when he was sideways through the tri-oval while I was inside of him was a true testament of what we learned in USAC with the Sprint Cars, Midgets and Silver Crown cars. By racing different types of cars on both dirt and asphalt, you learn car control. A lot of guys would not have saved their car like Ryan did last week. That's something I think we're both proud of as far as where we came from and what we've brought to this series."

Kansas and its sister track - Chicagoland - look exactly alike. Are they?

"They're about as close as you can get to being the same. You aren't going to find any two tracks that are more identical than Kansas and Chicago. The only difference between the two tracks - the backstretch at Chicago is a little bit rounded while Kansas' is straight."

With grip being an issue since Kansas is still a relatively new track, where are the passing zones?

"I think you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy that misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn't make a mistake and you've got a little better car than they do, I honestly think the groove will move up a little bit this year to where it'll be a little wider and you'll have more room to get a run on a guy. But as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car's handling will become more important. And when a guy makes a mistake you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up."

Track position and pit strategy seem to be the two biggest variables at Kansas. When and how do you make the decision to sacrifice tires for track position, or depending on the circumstances, track position for tires?

"I think it just depends on how your car is working. If your car is driving well, one that keeps you up toward the front all day because it's fast, then just two tires can keep you pretty quick. In that situation, you could make a big gain at the end by just taking on two tires and maintaining your track position. Even some guys who are behind and don't have their car the way they want, by taking on two tires, the track position they gain helps out more than four tires would. But when you get right down to it, I think Kansas is a track where if your car's good, then it doesn't matter whether you take two tires or four."

-jgr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Ryan Newman