TONY STEWART Channeling Kulwicki in 'Point' Chopper 400 KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Sept. 29, 2009) -- It's been 16 years since a driver/owner last won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship -- Alan Kulwicki on Nov. 15, 1992. No driver/owner has come...
Channeling Kulwicki in 'Point' Chopper 400
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Sept. 29, 2009) -- It's been 16 years since a driver/owner last won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship -- Alan Kulwicki on Nov. 15, 1992. No driver/owner has come close to contending for a championship since. That is until this season when Tony Stewart, in his first year as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas Racing, led the points for 13 straight weeks and earned a coveted berth in the 12-driver Chase for the Championship.
Two races into the 10-race Chase, Stewart is fifth in the standings, 106 points behind series leader Mark Martin. It's a far cry from Stewart's once dominant point lead, which reached as high as 260 points following his third win of the season Aug. 9 at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road course.
But the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS need not worry, for he can look to Kulwicki's championship season as reason to believe that a title run in 2009 is still very much within reach.
Kulwicki left Dover (Del.) International Speedway -- the same 1-mile oval where Stewart finished ninth in last Sunday's Sprint Cup race -- 278 points out of first with only six races remaining. Making matters worse, Kulwicki destroyed two racecars at Dover -- one in practice and another in the race, where he finished 34th. Even Kulwicki, whose perseverance and tenacity were unmatched in what was then called the Winston Cup garage, all but gave up hope that he could win the championship.
But the next weekend at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Kulwicki gained 87 points. Another 47 points were picked up at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. And at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, the Wisconsinite lopped a staggering 97 points from leader Bill Elliott's advantage. Suddenly, Kulwicki was only 47 points out of first. A stumble at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham cost Kulwicki 38 points to drop him 85 points behind, but after picking up 55 points in the penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway, the driver of the No. 7 Ford Thunderbird came into the season-finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway trailing new series leader Davey Allison by just 30 points. In the end, Kulwicki's "Underbird" was good enough to wrest the championship away from the more established teams of Allison and Elliott, as he took his first and only championship by a scant 10 points over Elliott.
Stewart, the Y2K version of a driver/owner in NASCAR's elite series, has 172 fewer points to make up and two more races than Kulwicki had in which to do it. He enters Sunday's Price Chopper 400 presented by Kraft Foods at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City -- round three in the 10-race Chase -- ready to kick his championship aspirations into high gear.
The Columbus, Ind., native won the 2006 Sprint Cup race at Kansas and has three top-fives and five top-10s in eight career starts at the 1.5-mile oval. He'll look to add to those stats while chopping down the point advantage currently enjoyed by Martin in the Price Chopper 400.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Can you compare what you are accomplishing now as a driver/owner to what Alan Kulwicki did in 1992 when he won what was then the Winston Cup championship?
"I think it's an unfair comparison. He had to work a lot harder than we did because he had his own engine program. He had to do his own chassis. That's something we've had the advantage of this year with our alliance with Hendrick Motorsports and knowing that we don't have to worry about the engine package each week. We don't have to worry about the chassis and how they are evolving. We have that luxury that Alan didn't have. I think still, to this day, that's one of the most remarkable accomplishments I've ever seen in this sport after having been in it for a while."
You've won two championships as a driver (2002 and 2005). How badly do you want to win this championship as a driver/owner?
"Every year you want to win the championship, but the cool thing is this year we have the opportunity to do something that Alan Kulwicki was the last to do. There's not a sense of urgency. It's not like after this year I'm not going to be an owner anymore and this is our only shot. But I feel like to a certain degree, what has happened so far this year has exceeded the expectations of many, and that everything from here on in is a bonus. I would be lying if I didn't say we realize we've got just as good a shot as anybody to win the championship, and we're going to work just as hard, if not harder, to accomplish that. But whatever we get out of that, we'll take. We feel that we've got two cars that if we can put together 10 good weeks, we've got as good a shot as anybody to win the championship."
Ryan Newman is your teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing. How are you working together in the Chase?
"We look at what each other is doing all the time. He always knows what we're doing. We always know what he's doing. Sometimes we're running different packages, but at least we know what each other has and why we're going in that direction. It doesn't mean that just because he's running better that what he is doing is going to work for us. Sometimes we're on different programs and sometimes we're better, but just having the knowledge of what package each other is running is a benefit."
What would it mean to win a championship as a car owner?
"Obviously, to win a championship as a driver is a great feeling, but to win it as a driver and owner adds to that. You get the sense of satisfaction knowing that you were directly responsible for helping put the package together. If we win it, there are so many people who would be a part of it -- Bobby Hutchens (competition director), Darian Grubb (crew chief, No. 14 team with Stewart), Tony Gibson (crew chief, No. 39 team with Newman) and Ryan Newman. The entire organization will have done it together. That's something that I'll be proud of -- being the guy that watched all these great people come together and do something extraordinary."
Did you think in your first year as a driver/owner that both of your cars would be in the Chase?
"We didn't really set expectations. We literally said that we were going to go one week at a time and evaluate what happened on Sunday when we sat down on Monday. Try to figure out what we did right, what we did wrong and what we could do to make it better and see where it took us at the end of the year. I'm happy. The whole organization is ecstatic to have both of these cars in the Chase. That in itself has made it a good year, so far."
Has this foray into team ownership been fun?
"I've always liked the people that I've worked with. I still get along great with the guys at Joe Gibbs Racing that I worked with last year. But I'm having fun with the guys I'm working with this year, and I think our attitude has just been different. We said we're keeping this simple, we're taking a step back and we're going to have fun with it and we feel like that's been part of the key to our success this year. We have fun at the racetrack. We joke around. We have a good time. We make sure that we're having fun doing what we're doing because if you're not, you can make yourself miserable doing this just like you can in anything else you do in life. We just simplified it and made it fun. Ryan (Newman) is having a good time and I'm having a good time because our entire organization is having fun too."
You started off the first two races of the 10-race Chase in decent fashion with a 14th-place finish at New Hampshire and then a ninth-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."
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. 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."
How do you compete against 11 guys for a championship while still competing with 42 guys for a race win?
"For the 12 that are competing, we're still racing against 31 other guys just like we've been since the beginning of the year. Probably for the first three or four weeks, I don't think we'll be too conscious of where we are on the racetrack. It's still going to be business as usual. But as we get closer to the end of the season -- probably with two or three races to go -- you're going to be singling out guys a little bit more and paying closer attention to where they are on the racetrack, what position they're in, and how many laps they've led. The further we get into it, the more the points are going to separate the field, and you're going to see exactly who you're racing against for the championship. There probably won't be 12 guys with two or three races left. It'll be down to four or five guys who have a shot at it."
What were some of the things you learned from being in the Chase in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008 that you're applying this year?
"My approach to the Chase is the same way it's been any other time I've been in a point race -- you go out there, you lead laps, you try to win races and the points take care of itself. I know that sounds like a simple formula, but the reason we got to this point is by following that theory. Every week we go out and we try to lead laps and we try to win races. That's what got us here. There's no reason to change that. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel."