TONY STEWART Homestretch for Home Depot Team ATLANTA (Sept. 11, 2007) -- 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...
Homestretch for Home Depot Team
ATLANTA (Sept. 11, 2007) -- 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 Nextel Cup comes this Sunday with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, comes into the fall New Hampshire race riding a summer hot streak that began in July with back-to-back wins at Chicagoland and Indianapolis. After finishing sixth at the next race in Pocono (Pa.), Stewart won again at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road course, and in the four races leading into New Hampshire, he's finished 10th, fourth, 13th and second.
Those wins and strong runs have placed Stewart into the Chase for the third time in his career. He begins this year's edition third in points, as the 10 bonus points earned for each of his three wins gives him 5,030 points, just 30 fewer points than six-time race victor and current point leader Jimmie Johnson.
While Johnson is looking to defend his championship from last year, Stewart is looking to pick up a third Nextel Cup title. The fact that the Chase begins at New Hampshire bodes well for Stewart, as he's proven to be fast at the 1.058-mile oval.
The two-time Nextel Cup champion has six top-threes, nine top-fives and 10 top-10s in his 17 career Nextel Cup starts at New Hampshire, while leading a total of 764 laps -- second-best among active Nextel Cup drivers. Among those totals were wins in July 2005 and July 2000. Not among those totals was his 1998 victory behind the wheel of an Indy car when New Hampshire played host to the IRL IndyCar Series.
With the Chase for the Nextel Cup fully upon Stewart and the rest of his top-12 pursuers, the quickest way for Stewart to close the gap on Johnson and put some distance between himself and those behind him is by winning and collecting the lion's share of points. After proving that point with his impressive run of three wins in four races, Stewart intends to re-emphasize that notion by collecting the most points possible when he flips the switch for the Sylvania 300.
Last year at this time you weren't in the Chase, as you missed the cutoff by 16 points. This year, you clinched a spot in the Chase with two races remaining in the regular season. What has made this September different from last September?
"Just 365 days, that's all. In all seriousness, it's a reality check with how easy it is to get yourself in a position where you can miss the Chase. I'm just glad we're back here and glad we're running the way we are. I think it shows the quality of team we've got after a disappointment like last year to come back and finish the regular season second in points. Now we start the Chase third, so we're in a good spot."
What has gone right for you this year that didn't last year?
"I don't think we had any real, devastatingly bad luck like we had last year. Last year, we blew a couple of motors up early in the season and the two or three weeks before the Chase we just had some bad, bad races. This year we ran fourth at Bristol. We had a mediocre day at California and still ended up 13th, and then we came to Richmond and ran second. And as much as we wanted to win at Richmond, I think in the big picture, we're all just happy that we've got a chance to run for the championship this year."
Drawing on your experience from last year, do you have empathy for Dale Earnhardt Jr., knowing how hard he ran to make the Chase, but still came up short?
"You feel bad for everybody that didn't make the Chase. It's not just Dale Jr. There's a bunch of other guys that 36 weeks a year come out here and race their hearts out and race just as hard as Dale Jr. does. But the top-12 teams are the ones that make it, and that's just the way it is."
How do you like your chances going into this year's Chase?
"According to the odds, we've got a one in 12 shot. We've just got to work from there. There are so many variables that go on each week that you can't control. There's more variables that you can't control then you can. You've just got to hope every lap that everything goes alright. You don't want to have any bad luck or have anything bad happen."
You're the only driver to have won a championship under the old NASCAR Winston Cup Series format (2002) and a championship under the current Chase format (2005). Do you feel a sense of the history you can make by winning another Nextel Cup title, as you would become the first two-time Chase champion while still holding on to the title as the only driver to win a Winston Cup and a Nextel Cup championship?
"Honestly, not as much as I should. It's such a good feeling knowing that we have that opportunity. Obviously, things have changed a lot in the last three or four years with the way the Chase is constructed. But just to have that opportunity each year is something every team is striving for. Now that we're locked into that position, we've got 10 weeks to go out there and make that become a reality again."
Does having won championships better prepare you for a championship run this year?
"By theory, yes. But you could have 50 championships under your belt and still finish 12th in points. But just knowing how to deal with the pressure is probably the biggest thing. Knowing what's going to happen and what positions you're going to be in when those last two or three weeks come up -- if you're one of those guys that still has a legitimate shot of winning the championship -- that's the kind of experience you'll want to have gone through."
Getting to this point has meant your race team has given you competitive race cars week in and week out. That sounds simple, but it's no small feat considering that two types of cars have had to be prepared this year -- older generation Chevrolet Monte Carlos and current generation Chevy Impalas, as the Impala embraces the Car of Tomorrow (CoT) concept. How important has your team's preparation been to your success so far this season?
"I'm really proud of the entire Joe Gibbs Racing organization. To have CoT cars this year and the old cars that we were used to running every week, to do what we've had to do to get all of these cars built and to run as well as we've run with both disciplines, I'm really proud of our guys for what they've been able to do, not only on The Home Depot team, but with the Interstate Batteries team and the FedEx team. Everybody at our shop has really worked hard to get us where we are this year. It's a bigger accomplishment knowing what hurdles we had to cross with the new car this year. Just being in this group this year shows the strength of our organization."
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."
So, is a fast lap all about throttle control?
"No, not necessarily. A lot of times when you get in the gas, you're able to stay in the gas. It's just a matter of having a good enough handling car to where you can get into the corner, roll through the center, and then get in the gas and stay in the gas when you do get back in the throttle."
While you've won at New Hampshire, you've also had races where you've struggled. How can one race weekend turn out great and another turn into one you'd rather forget?
"If you miss on something it can be a miserable day. It seems like you don't see but three or four guys during the day that really hit it. That's what makes a day there miserable when you miss. It's just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day. And it seems like you can have bad track position, but if you have a car that drives well, you can drive your way to the front. It's not a situation you cringe at if you have a good-driving car."