TONY STEWART A Little Rest, Then Another Test ATLANTA (March 3, 2006) - Only two races are down on the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series marathon, but already there's a break in the action with the first of just three off-weekends built into the...
A Little Rest, Then Another Test
ATLANTA (March 3, 2006) - Only two races are down on the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series marathon, but already there's a break in the action with the first of just three off-weekends built into the 10-month schedule.
After racing at the restrictor plate track in Daytona (Fla.), the Nextel Cuppers stopped at the first of what will be many high downforce-style tracks - California Speedway in Fontana. The 2-mile oval an hour east of Los Angeles has sweeping corners and long straightaways, and with trap speeds at or near the 200 mph mark, aerodynamics becomes key.
Where a team's race car is in terms of aerodynamic balance - how evenly the air flows over the car from nose to tail - is just as important as how much horsepower its cast-iron V-8 engine produces. California was the first true test for teams to see how good or how bad they were in relation to their competition.
For Tony Stewart and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team, they know they're good. Although a quick glance at the finishing order from California might mislead one into thinking otherwise.
Stewart finished 43rd at California. A blown engine on lap 214 of the 251-lap race ended his day early, leaving the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet last and ending a 30-race streak where Stewart had been running at the finish. But prior to that letdown, it was Stewart and his Joe Gibbs Racing Team who seemed to be the only outfit capable of challenging the five-car juggernaut of Roush Racing, which at one point had its entire fleet within the top-10, with four cars within the top-five.
Stewart led twice for 28 laps and doggedly pursued Roush pilot Greg Biffle, who ironically finished one spot ahead of Stewart when his engine expired on lap 229, handing the race to fellow Roush driver Matt Kenseth.
One might think that after such a stellar drive and a shot at clinching his 25th career Nextel Cup victory that Stewart would've been raging, beside himself over the missed opportunity. In fact, it was the polar opposite.
"Dropping out is not the way you want to end the day, by any means," said a cool and collected Stewart standing beside his race car. "But at the same time, to run as well as we did today and to fight back from what was handed to us, I'm almost as excited as if we won the race just from the standpoint of what we were able to overcome.
"This is how we won a championship last year. The good thing is that the guys will leave here excited about the performance of how we ran. They're not going to be excited by how we finished, obviously, but we'll look past that and see the big picture.
"I think we showed today that we're right on top of our game. We don't normally run this strong this early in the year, so I'm really excited about where we are right now."
Stewart and Co. will soon be en route to their next test - the March 12 UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The 1.5-mile oval has similar characteristics to California, and as such, serves as a gauge for teams to further measure their respective performances.
The two-time and reigning Nextel Cup champions like where they are. They just want to finish what they started at California.
A lot of importance was placed on the California race, and it seems an equal amount of importance is placed on the upcoming race at Las Vegas. Why?
"These early races teach you very quickly where your program is compared to the competition. If your cars are good, you'll run well at California, Vegas, Atlanta, Texas and so on. Everybody wants to know where they stack up and shake up right now. If you can get off to a good start, it shows that your program is really where it needs to be. This is a huge week."
With California serving as an example, are you less worried about where you finish and more concerned with how you actually run?
"It's not so much that you worry about points as you worry about performance. We ran well at California, but we didn't finish well. We seemed to stack up well against the Hendrick and Roush teams, but I'm anxious to do it again at Las Vegas. We want to know - are we where we need to be? Are we competitive right off the bat? Compared to last year, we feel like we're starting this year off a lot better. Las Vegas may be a different situation, but if The Home Depot Chevrolet drives anywhere like it did at California, I'm going to be real excited about the year."
How is Las Vegas Motor Speedway different from California Speedway?
"The corners are tighter. It's tighter coming off turn four and tighter going into turn one than it is at California. That's why the handling is so important there. Because the corners are tighter, it makes it really important that The Home Depot Chevrolet rolls through there free - not tight or loose. It's a real important track in terms of balance."
Has winning a second championship earned you more respect amongst your peers?
"I think as hard as it is just to win one championship in this sport, it probably does gain you more respect with your peers. Every year the competition level gets tougher and tougher. To be able to win two championships and do it in such a short amount of time is something that not only myself, but our team, our whole organization, is really proud of. It's not something that's just a personal accomplishment, it's a team accomplishment."
What has winning a second championship done for expectations this year?
"It didn't change our expectations at all. I won three (USAC) championships in '95, but when I went to the IRL, you don't expect to win there. When I went to the Busch Series and the Cup Series, you didn't automatically expect to win there. Every year is a new year. Last year's title could be the last championship that I'll ever win. But I do feel that I can win the championship again this year. You just don't know. When one year is over, you start from scratch. Everybody starts at square one all over again. Even though we're happy with winning the championship, it doesn't change how your thought process goes. The only thing we can take away from winning the championship last year is knowing that we're capable of doing it again this year. As a team, we're capable of accomplishing that goal."
Knowing that you're capable of winning another championship - what does that do for you and the race team in terms of confidence?
"Our confidence is definitely high, but that's only one small piece of the entire puzzle. As a driver, if you don't have confidence, you're not going to get the job done. It's the same for the race team. Our team has confidence knowing that we are capable of providing cars to deliver a championship. The guys are smart enough to deliver the championship. And I'm confident in my driving. Starting the season with that kind of confidence is something that is definitely an asset."
Do you like having an off-weekend so early in the schedule?
"No, not really. I wish we could find a way of taking the three weekends we have off and spreading them out a little bit more evenly. On a 36-week schedule when you have 20 straight races and three weekends off in 16 weeks, it doesn't make a lot of sense. It's obvious why we take Easter weekend off. Some of the early off-weekends make sense, but it would be nice to take this weekend's off time and save it for somewhere in that stretch before the Chase starts - maybe take a week off before that last 10-week stretch."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
Did the early off-weekend help your race team's schedule in terms of building cars?
"We'll take weekends off whenever we can get 'em. I'm sure it'll help most teams. I know it'll help us because we have a few decent cars built, but we don't have as many as we'd like to. Having this off-weekend will allow us to get a lot done in the shop before we go to Las Vegas."
Were you happy to see an off-weekend this early in the season?
"Like I said, we'll take all the off-weekends we can get. It's hard to space out those off-weekends the way we'd like them to be. If it were me, I'd just look at the schedule and space them out as evenly as I could. But I don't have to deal with race tracks and weather. So we'll take this early gift, enjoy it, and in another couple of weeks we'll have another one. We've got a few of our off-weekends early this year, so we'll take advantage of them and hopefully they'll get us rested for the fall."