Homestretch for Home Depot Team ATLANTA (Sept. 14, 2004) - With 26 point races down and only 10 remaining, the marathon-like NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule is coming into its homestretch. And the first of the final 10 races in the...
Homestretch for Home Depot Team
ATLANTA (Sept. 14, 2004) - With 26 point races down and only 10 remaining, the marathon-like NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule is coming into its homestretch. And the first of the final 10 races in the series' new Chase for the Championship comes this Sunday with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon.
Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, comes into New Hampshire needing a bit of rejuvenation. He has three consecutive finishes of 19th, 18th and 19th, a far cry from the seven top-10 finishes he earned in the eight races prior.
During that time, Stewart recorded two wins - Chicagoland on July 11 and Watkins Glen on Aug. 15. The win at The Glen added to Stewart's late season mystique, for it gave The Home Depot driver a total of seven career wins in the last three months of the season. That's right, of Stewart's 19 Nextel Cup victories, 36.8 percent have come in September, October and November.
It all makes New Hampshire the perfect venue for the 2002 series champion to get back on track. Stewart has proven to be fast at the 1.058-mile oval, with three top-threes, six top-fives and seven top-10s in his 11 career Nextel Cup starts. Amongst those totals was a win in July of 2000, and not amongst them was his 1998 victory behind the wheel of an Indy car when New Hampshire played host to the Indy Racing League.
With the Chase for the Championship now fully upon Stewart and the rest of his top-10 counterparts, the best way to earn the most points possible is by winning. Stewart intends to do just that when the switch is flipped for the Sylvania 300.
Will you employ any type of strategy during this 10-race stretch?
"We've got to go about it like we have the past five years this team has been in existence, and that's to take it one race at a time. These next 10 races are the same 10 races we had last year. You go to the track, you race, and you get points for it. Wherever we are at the end of these 10 races is where we are. That's how we won a championship in 2002 and that's how we're going about it this year. It's still about racing and which team consistently does the best job. So in my opinion, not a whole lot has changed."
Has the Chase for the Championship done what it's supposed to do - create excitement for NASCAR as it goes head-to-head with the NFL?
"Well, I'd never seen as much excitement surrounding the fall Richmond race as I did this past weekend. I wish I could've been a bigger factor in that race, but we just weren't. As far as going up against football, I never really paid too much attention to how many people watched what on television. But if we put on good races and more people are watching because of the Chase, then it's tough to argue that it's not working."
In the three races you've run since New Hampshire was repaved, did you find that a second groove developed with the repaving of the corners? Did your entry and exit change through the corners as the race progressed?
"I think it did. Depending on how our car drove we were able to move around on the race track and find ways to make The Home Depot Chevrolet work. It wasn't impossible to pass, by any means. It started widening out a little bit, and every time we go there it'll continue to widen out."
Was the racing at New Hampshire in those three races an improvement over what it had been in previous years?
"Time will tell. If they just leave the track alone for a while, give it a couple of years to cure, we'll see what happens. But I think it'll keep getting better and better. It's something that only time can take care of."
Regardless of the complaints drivers have made over the years about the track surface at New Hampshire, the Bahre family - owners of the race track - seem to have done everything in their power to improve it. It seemed like they finally succeeded last July. Do you appreciate the efforts the Bahre family has put forth?
"Absolutely. They've worked really hard. I didn't think they ever had a bad race track, but I applaud them for trying to make it better. They aren't passive people. They won't just let things be the way they are. They had a nice race track to begin with and they've tried to make it even nicer. They're always looking to improve the place. Proof of that are the SAFER walls they put up. They were one of the first tracks to do that. It's just one more example of how far they'll go to make their race track better."
Is New Hampshire a good place to race?
"Obviously, I like it because I've had success there. But at the same time, it's a tough track to pass on. You can be a couple of tenths faster than a guy, but it still takes you 20 laps to get by him. There are other tracks on the circuit where it's hard to pass, but we still go out and put on good shows there, too. Every race at Loudon seems to be a pretty good race. So, I like it. I enjoy racing there even though it is hard to pass. But when you've got a good car, it's always fun to race."
Explain a lap around New Hampshire.
"It's a big motor deal. With the corners being so tight, you've got to put a lot of gear in the car to get it up off the corner. Forward bite is always an issue there too - trying to get the car to go forward. So, it's hard to get up off the corners. Then you've got long straightaways where you can kind of relax a little bit. Coming into the corners, you use a lot of brake, and it's hard to not only get the car stopped, but to get it to turn. Then you go through that challenge all over again."
Because New Hampshire is a difficult race track, are some drivers beat before they even make a practice lap because they have a negative outlook about the race track?
"It certainly doesn't help if someone has a bad attitude going in there. It kind of puts a strike against you, but I'm not going to say that you're already beat. There are tracks that I've been to that weren't my favorite tracks, but I still found a way to win there. You've just got to stay focused and work hard to find what it takes to be good."
With three NASCAR touring divisions racing at New Hampshire in addition to the Nextel Cup Series, will we see you doing any extra-curricular racing?
"I'd love to run a Modified there. I've run with some of those guys in the past. I haven't had the most stellar Modified career by any means, but I did win a race in an SK Modified for Ted Christopher at Thompson (Conn.) last year. I really have a lot of respect for the Modified drivers after I had the chance to run with those guys. I'd love to have the opportunity to go race with them again."