TONY STEWART Homestretch for Home Depot Team ATLANTA (Sept. 12, 2005) - 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...
Homestretch for Home Depot Team
ATLANTA (Sept. 12, 2005) - 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' playoff-style 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 the fall New Hampshire race riding a summer hot streak that began in June with a second-place run at Michigan. After that podium finish, Stewart scored five wins, a trio of fifths, two sevenths and an eighth to log 12 straight races with a top-10 finish. And one of those wins came at this year's July visit to New Hampshire, where Stewart dominated by leading six times for a race-high 232 laps.
It all makes New Hampshire the perfect venue for the 2002 series champion to begin his personal chase toward another series title.
Stewart has proven to be fast at the 1.058-mile oval, with four top-threes, seven top-fives and eight top-10s in his 13 career Nextel Cup starts. Amongst those totals were wins in July of this year and in July of 2000. Not amongst those totals 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 fully upon points leader Stewart and the rest of his top-10 pursuers - most of whom are now separated by just five point increments - the quickest way for Stewart to put some distance between himself and those who are chasing him is by winning and collecting the lion's share of points. After proving that point with his impressive victory in July, Stewart intends to re-emphasize that notion by collecting the most points possible when he flips the switch for the Sylvania 300.
Last year you were essentially knocked out of the Chase at New Hampshire when you were caught up in an accident not of your making. Is there any way you or NASCAR can prevent such a thing from happening again this year?
"There are 43 guys who start the race and there's 10 of us in the Chase. You can't control the other 33 guys. They've got a right to race just like everyone else. They're still racing for their spot in the point standings and their share of championship prize money too. I'm not sure there's any solution to prevent what happened last year. When you're in the top-10 there at the end you've got to protect yourself. You've got to race hard but you've also got to protect yourself, and that's how you get into the Chase to begin with. It was just an unfortunate deal, but we always knew in the back of our minds that something like that could happen. We just didn't anticipate that it would happen in the first race of the Chase."
When you won the series championship in 2002 you started the season with a 43rd place finish in the Daytona 500. Did that tell you that you didn't have to start the season strong in order to factor into the title chase?
"I think everybody has a 'throw away' race. It's just a matter of when do you have it? You don't want to have it at the first race of the year because you soon realize that you're not going to have too many opportunities to have something like that happen again. After being at Daytona for 10 days it was a huge disappointment to go out and run two laps in the Daytona 500 and then leave early. But I think everyone is realistic about knowing that you have 26 races to get yourself into the Chase. But by the end of that 26th week you'd better be ready for those next 10 races because you've got to be consistently good each week."
What will it take to win another championship?
"If I knew that we'd win the championship every year. There's no blueprint. Every year if you look back in the history of NASCAR there's never been two years that have been identical. Every year is kind of like a snowflake - they're all different. You've just got to take the circumstances you're dealt each week and work to consistently finish in the top-five. If you can do that every week you'll put yourself into a position to win the championship."
What made your Home Depot Chevrolet so good during the July race at New Hampshire?
"At the beginning of the race, we could pass cars at the front of a run. But in the middle and latter stages of the race, the guys got their cars better and it got to where our car really wasn't that strong. And for six or seven laps it would take that long for it to get a lot of grip and lock down. But early in the race we could get by guys until they got their cars better. As the day went on, we had a lot of good track position and that helped us. It seemed like Kyle Busch was able to stay with us longer on every restart. Then at the end of the day both of the Busch (brothers) - the shrub and the bigger Busch (Kurt) - were both good enough to stay with us. Kyle was almost good enough to get by, and Kurt actually got by. So it was in that six- or seven-lap window where we just didn't have as much grip as we needed. But once our tires came in we were able to track Kurt down after that last restart and get by."
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."
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."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
In late 1998 you were the rookie crew chief at Joe Gibbs Racing. Seven years later you're the senior crew chief, overseeing the #20 team but also acting as a resource for the #18 and #11 teams. What do you think of that?
"Crazy isn't it? I look at it as how old you are and how long you've been doing this. I'm 39 years old, but in dog years I'm really 55 or 60. I'm surprised by it in some areas because this job is so demanding, emotionally and physically. It's all a part of it, and he who does the best job of juggling it all survives the longest. It's a matter of how hard you can continue to go."
In today's age is a crew chief's job more on the mechanical side or on the human resources side?
"It's definitely not on the mechanical side in terms of working on the car. It's on the technical side of 'What are we going to do this week to prepare for next week?' And a lot of it is human resources. It's people. You can't work on a race team without them but there are days when you wish you didn't have any of them, as the old saying goes. In a lot of ways it's fun, but it can also be pretty trying. It's one of the things that I like the most but I hate the most. And sometimes it's so overwhelming that I feel like I haven't done as good a job as I would've liked worrying about my race cars."
How much of a technology jump was it when you went from being a NASCAR Busch North Series crew chief to a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series crew chief?
"It's just a whole different deal when you're racing 18 races a year up in the Northeast and you're pretty much doing it all yourself. I've painted the cars, put bodies on them, wired them - you did all that stuff. But you come down South and you get more specialized in certain areas. You're dealing with more engineers, more people, more races and you're just trying to make better decisions. Every year it gets, I don't want to say complicated, but there are certainly more variables that you have to keep straight. So, I miss those days an awful lot. I enjoyed working on the cars. Now it's just more people stuff and being organized and preparing and things like that. It's definitely changed, but for the most part I still enjoy it because there are a lot different challenges."
How tough is it for a crew chief to stay ahead of the ever-increasing technology curve?
"You just try to surround yourself with good people, and hopefully they can help you do some of those things that are cutting-edge. You've got to be open-minded enough to take the resources around you and use them to their advantage. Sometimes that's hard when you're used to doing most of it or having most of the responsibilities. It's hard sometimes to adjust, and give other people responsibility and trust. That's a big thing."
As a crew chief, how do you go pace yourself and your race team for a season that races 38 weekends over a 10-month span?
"We'll just go until we can't go anymore, I guess. If you stop you're going to get run over in this sport as much as things are changing and as much as we've got going on at the shop."