TONY STEWART The Not So Odd Couple ATLANTA (Feb. 27, 2008) -- When it was announced on Aug. 14, 2007 that Kyle Busch would join Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) in 2008, many thought that Busch's personality would conflict with the personalities...
The Not So Odd Couple
ATLANTA (Feb. 27, 2008) -- When it was announced on Aug. 14, 2007 that Kyle Busch would join Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) in 2008, many thought that Busch's personality would conflict with the personalities of JGR's other two drivers -- Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart.
More fingers pointed toward Stewart as the one who would most likely find friction with the addition of Busch, as the two had butted heads in the past. But two races and multiple test sessions into the 2008 NASCAR season, it appears that what some called NASCAR's "Odd Couple" is anything but.
Whether it's a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race or a NASCAR Nationwide Series race, Stewart and Busch have been bumper-to-bumper, working together to earn the best finish possible. It's translated off the track as well, with the two drivers sharing insight into their respective car's handling while also enjoying such serious discussions as which parts of Smokey and The Bandit are the best.
The results are black and white. Busch is atop the championship point standings in Sprint Cup and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and second in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Stewart is third in Sprint Cup points while leading the Nationwide Series standings thanks to back-to-back wins at Daytona (Fla.) and Fontana (Calif.). Busch would lead the Nationwide Series standings as well if Stewart hadn't elected to run the first two races of the season, for directly behind Stewart in both contests was Busch.
The addition of Busch also propelled Stewart and his No. 20 Home Depot Toyota to a strong second-place finish in the Gatorade Duel qualifying race at Daytona and a near-win in the season-opening Daytona 500. In between those two races during the latter part of Daytona Speedweeks, the two drivers met in Stewart's motorcoach to simply hang out, with newcomer Busch bringing a gift to veteran Stewart -- a DVD of Smokey and The Bandit.
With round three of the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule upon them, Stewart and Busch want to win more than ever. Sunday's UAW-Dodge 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a race each driver covets.
For Stewart, Las Vegas is one of only four Sprint Cup venues where he has yet to win. The others are Fontana, Darlington (S.C.) and Talladega (Ala.).
For the 22-year-old Busch, Las Vegas Motor Speedway is his hometown track. He grew up racing across the street at the Las Vegas Bullring while also graduating with honors from Las Vegas' Durango High School.
Just as the two drivers have pushed one another in pre-season testing and in the season's first two races, they'll continue to do so this weekend at Las Vegas. And to borrow a popular expression from the casino floors that line the Las Vegas Strip, they'll be "all in" as soon as the green flag drops.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
You have a new teammate in Kyle Busch. What does he bring to Joe Gibbs Racing?
"Kyle is a totally different guy than what a lot of people perceive him to be. I like Kyle. I'm proud to have him as a teammate and I'm proud of him as a competitor. He's just a kid who's happy-go-lucky. He's always laughing about something, and that's what we need. That kid loves racing more than anybody I know. He'll run three races a weekend if the Trucks are here and not even think twice about it.
"Kyle and I, our relationship together when he first started was a little rough, but even before he signed the contract, we got things smoothed out and learned how to get along well with each other. It's great having him here at Joe Gibbs Racing. I know people think he's a little rough around the edges, but I see a lot of talent in him. He's a great teammate. The test session that we had at Atlanta before the season was even over, working with him and talking to him and communicating with him, I knew then that he was going to be a strong asset to this team.
"He's learned a lot of patience. He's got a lot of qualities that are going to help this race team. Having all three cars up front every week is something that is going to make us that much stronger. Kyle is very much a team player already. He's so willing to give information and talk about what his car is doing. Having that information and having three guys that are up front, with our cars driving fairly similarly, is going to make us that much stronger of a race team. We have three guys that have very similar personalities that I think are going to mesh really well.
"He's got a different set of ideas that we haven't had in the past. We had our first team meeting as far as the three crew chiefs, the three drivers and the three main engineers from each team, where we all got together after the shortened happy hour session that we had at California. And listening to how Kyle and Denny and I all work together, the crew chiefs all work together, I really believe that's going to lead this team higher than it has ever been. That was really one of Kyle's ideas with the team, was to try to get us all together after happy hour. I know we tried to do it some last year, but I think he was really adamant about all three teams being able to get together like that and share information. I really believe it is going to help us be a better race team. The three of us, even Denny and I, it's got Denny and I communicating more than we ever have in the past."
(The fourth paragraph just above comes courtesy of SIRIUS Satellite Radio's "Tony Stewart Live" -- Ed.)
Of the three drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing, it's you who appears to be the leader.
"It's a little frightening, right? The great thing about being the leader is that they can learn from my mistakes. I'm more than willing to give any information I can to keep them from having some of the problems that I've had in the past. I don't know if I feel a sense of responsibility from that standpoint, but I remember what it was like when I came in and I remember how good Bobby Labonte was to me. Bobby was the guy I always leaned on for information. If I can help Denny and Kyle in that same way, then I'm more than willing to do that.
"There's no manual that tells you how to adapt to the Cup Series. When you go from the Truck Series to the (Nationwide) Series, the transition isn't huge, but when you make that last jump from (Nationwide) to Cup, it's a huge jump. It always helps to have veterans that are willing to sit down and take time with you and help you get through some of the headaches and the hurdles that come with being a new guy."
Last year at Las Vegas, you dealt with a freshly paved race track and an incredibly hard tire. The combination led to a lack of grip and a fair amount of discomfort in terms of the feel of your race car. But after testing at Las Vegas in January, where you had a new tire and the track had a year's worth of weathering, did you feel that this year's race would be a little bit more hospitable, at least from behind the wheel of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota?
"The track has seasoned in pretty quick for a year, and to be honest, I'm surprised that it seasoned in as well as it has already. A different tire has helped it also."
You're pulling double-duty this weekend by competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race and in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race. It used to be that running in the Nationwide Series on Saturday would gain you some information that you could apply to Sunday's Cup race. But now that the Cup Series is running a new generation car and the Nationwide Series continues to campaign the older generation car, how different are the two types of cars?
"The cars are quite a bit different. The Cup car is not supposed to handle like the other cars are, so you have to drive them totally different. They're never going to be the same again. What you learn in the Nationwide race isn't going to pertain to what you do in the Cup race because the cars are so different."
How has the current generation race car made racing at a track like Las Vegas different than in year's past?
"Because they're not designed to handle as well, it obviously puts the driver more in the equation. But what it's put a high emphasis on now is engineering. You're still not going to make it any faster than it's able to go. Now, you have to rely on the engineers to find the combination that will make the car go fast, and then you just wrestle the car from that point. A driver won't be able to make up the difference. We're not going to be able to take a 10th-place car and run first with it. A driver might be able to maintain what he's got, but if his car isn't driving well, he's not going to win the race, and that's where engineering is coming more into play.
"As technology and time have marched on, the window of getting your car right has become smaller and smaller and smaller. The engineers work within that window to get the car right, but you still have to have a driver who can put it in that window and drive it to its capabilities. So now, when you have a window that small, if you can pick up a half-tenth of a second as a driver, that makes that half-tenth more important than it used to be five years ago. Back then, a half-tenth might've been a tenth-and-a-half. With the window getting tighter and tighter, it makes the emphasis on the driver more important. But it's not just the driver. It's still about getting that car right. That's why the engineers play such a critical role. If they can find a half-tenth, it's just as important as a driver picking up a half-tenth. It makes every area from A-to-Z that much more critical than before."
When you get to the race track, are you finding that what you have when you unload on Friday is what you pretty much have for the rest of the weekend?
"I think you'll find a range that works. Everybody is still trying to figure it out, especially on the mile-and-a-half and two-mile ovals, where that 'sweet-spot' is. And once you find it, you don't stray very far from one side to the other. A computer program is going to tell you what you have to run now. The Roush guys talked about that last year, that when they get to the track they get a sheet that says, 'This is what the simulation program tells us is the setup to run.' And the setup is pretty much right on."