TONY STEWART Kansas Giveth and Taketh Away ATLANTA -- Tony Stewart has enjoyed an improbable high and an equally improbable low in his last two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, site of Sunday's Camping World...
Kansas Giveth and Taketh Away
ATLANTA -- Tony Stewart has enjoyed an improbable high and an equally improbable low in his last two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, site of Sunday's Camping World RV 400.
The high came in 2006, when Stewart -- who was out of the Chase and had little to lose and everything to gain -- gambled with his Home Depot-sponsored No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team that he had enough fuel to make the final 71 laps around Kansas' 1.5-mile oval. Their gambled paid off, as Stewart led the final five laps of the 267-lap race and coasted across the finish line with an empty tank to score his 27th career Sprint Cup victory and his third of the season, beating Casey Mears by 12.422 seconds.
The low came in last year's Sprint Cup race at Kansas. Stewart was in the lead when a downpour forced NASCAR officials to wave the red flag and halt the event. With heavy rains, along with thunder and lightning, pelting the track well past the halfway point of the race, Stewart appeared to have his 33rd career Sprint Cup victory and his fourth win of 2007 locked up.
The two-time Sprint Cup champion had come from his 19th-place starting position to lead three times for 13 laps, and appeared ready to log his first win in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup and take a substantial lead in the championship standings. But after an almost two-and-a-half hour effort to dry the track, the race was restarted and what Stewart once thought was his was now fair game for the race's other contenders.
Before the restart, Stewart pitted for tires and fuel and held onto the lead as other drivers followed his strategy. But when a multi-car accident on lap 157 stacked up cars off turn two, Stewart had to get on the brakes hard to avoid getting collected in the crash. Stewart was able to dive low to escape most of the carnage, but not without some damage to the left-front corner of the No. 20 machine. As the field rode around under caution, the damage appeared cosmetic, and with track position at a premium, Stewart stayed on the race track. But once the race went back to green and Stewart returned to speed, the damage to the left-front fender proved troublesome, as the crinkled fender rubbed against the tire each time Stewart dove into the corners.
On lap 175, the tire deflated, and while Stewart waved to the drivers behind him that he was slowing, it wasn't enough. Kurt Busch came upon Stewart quickly and wasn't able to maneuver away from the stricken No. 20. The bumper of Busch's Dodge made contact with the rear of Stewart's car, sending Stewart sideways into the SAFER barrier on the outside retaining wall. The Home Depot machine then slid down the apron and into the path of fellow Chase driver Carl Edwards.
Stewart was unhurt, but the car was done for the day with heavy rear-end damage. The accident and resulting 39th-place finish also impacted Stewart's standing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He dropped two spots to fourth and 117 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson. Johnson would go on to win the championship while Stewart finished sixth in points.
The disappointing outcome gave Stewart his first DNF (Did Not Finish) at Kansas and only his second finish outside the top-10 in seven career Sprint Cup starts there. Prior to last year's race, Stewart's average finish at Kansas was sixth and he had a lap completion rate of 100 percent.
Even with the disappointment of last year's run, Stewart has proven himself extremely formidable at Kansas. With his eighth career Sprint Cup start at Kansas coming in Sunday's Camping World RV 400, Stewart has already put 2007 in his rearview mirror and is focusing on the opportunities that await him in 2008.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
In light of what took place at Kansas last year, where you seemingly had the race won, only to see it turn 180 degrees and end up with a 39th-place finish, do you feel Kansas owes you something?
"That was just circumstances. We were able to win a fuel mileage race there where we really weren't in a position to win, but because of our situation in the point standings, we were able to gamble and go for it. Somebody else that day lost a race they should've won, and last year may have been one of those for us. But it all comes out in the wash and it all averages out eventually."
Is what happened to you last year at Kansas a prime example of how fickle this sport can be?
"There are guys out there on different agendas, especially with the Chase format. There are guys each week that have a different agenda of what they're trying to accomplish with that day's race. There are guys that have the opportunity to take chances and there are guys who don't have the opportunity to take chances. With that, it creates a lot of different scenarios at the end of the day. We took a chance last year. The scenario we had projected for ourselves just didn't work out."
You won the 2006 race at Kansas by successfully gambling on fuel mileage. Prior to that, had you ever won a race on fuel mileage?
"No, but we've lost them that way, so it was nice to finally get one. It was a battle between the driver and the crew chief. The crew chief is yelling at you every lap to save fuel, but you're not slowing down enough and he knows it because he's looking at the stop watch.
"When you've got guys behind you, you know you don't want to give those spots up in case they happen make it on fuel. So, I tried to save as much fuel as I could and still hold guys off.
"We were able to take the chance because we had nothing to lose. Not being in the Chase gave us that opportunity to take the chance and go ahead and run for it. It's not a chance we can take this year."
When you took the checkered flag you were out of gas. What were your thoughts inside the car when you knew you had run out?
"When we were coming down the backstretch, I asked how many laps we had left and they said, 'You're coming to the white (flag).' Then I saw the needle start bouncing and it wasn't on zero, but it was down to three pounds and bouncing up and down. We came down the frontstretch and it started losing pressure when we went into turn one. Then it caught up for a second, but as soon as we came off turn two, it lost pressure immediately. It's just important to get it kicked out of gear right away and just get down low on the race track and take the shortest distance around. We just coasted around and hoped we had enough of a lead to stay out front. Turned out we did."
You started off the first two races of the 10-race Chase fairly well with an eighth-place finish at New Hampshire and then an 11th-place finish last Sunday at Dover. How important is it to get off to a good start during the Chase?
"Without knowing what the next eight weeks are going to be like, you don't know whether it's important or not. It sure doesn't hurt your feelings after you've put up a good run. It's kind of common sense. If you run bad, you're not real happy about it. If you run good, you're normally pretty happy about it."
New Hampshire and Dover has seen some Chase drivers falter. 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. 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. 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 ask 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 eight weeks are going to be."
Your teammates -- Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin -- have had tough starts to the Chase. What's your advice for them?
"For those guys, they can just throw caution to the wind and go for wins now. If I were Kyle, I'd go out there and just worry about winning races again. It's been a remarkable, record-setting year for that kid, and the best way to finish it off now is to go out there and win three or four races during the Chase. It's hard to tell him to keep his head up. I mean, there's nobody who's going to make him feel better right now, and rightfully so. The kid has worked hard all year. The team has worked hard all year. They've just had two bad races in a row, and that's what you hope doesn't happen, obviously. You feel for those guys."