TONY STEWART "What Me, Worry?" KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Sept. 16, 2009) -- Tony Stewart does not care that his average finish in the four races since clinching a spot in the Chase for the Championship is 19.5. Nor does he care that his once ...
"What Me, Worry?"
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (Sept. 16, 2009) -- Tony Stewart does not care that his average finish in the four races since clinching a spot in the Chase for the Championship is 19.5. Nor does he care that his once towering point lead has been wiped away since the top-12 drivers competing in the Chase have had their respective point tallies reset to 5,000, with an additional 10 bonus points awarded for each of their respective wins during the 26-race regular season.
What Stewart does care about is that the Chase for the Championship is on, and that round one begins with Sunday's Sylvania 300 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
For the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS, there is no better place to start the Chase than at New Hampshire. Granted, it's far from an objective opinion, as Stewart has proven to be rock solid in the Granite State.
In 21 career Sprint Cup starts at the 1.058-mile oval, the Columbus, Ind.-native has two wins (July 2000 and July 2005), one pole (September 2005), seven top-threes, 11 top-fives, 13 top-10s and has led a total of 976 laps, second only to Jeff Gordon's total of 1,205 laps led, but with eight fewer starts than Gordon. And to top it all off, Stewart has two wins outside of Sprint Cup at New Hampshire -- a NASCAR Nationwide Series triumph in 2008 and an IRL IndyCar Series victory in 1998.
Stewart might've had two more New Hampshire trophies had the past two June visits to the track not been shortened by rain. Stewart led twice for a race-high 132 laps in last year's Lenox Industrial Tools 301, but was caught outside the top-10 as other teams gambled that they'd have enough fuel to go the distance if rain ended the race prematurely. When rain did just that, stopping the race 17 laps short of its scheduled 301-lap distance, Stewart had to settle for 13th instead of spraying champagne in an already waterlogged victory lane.
It was dejà vu in the series' return trip to New Hampshire this past June, as Stewart led 40 laps, only for rain to again cut the race short, this time 28 laps shy of its scheduled 301-lap distance. Again, drivers who gambled on fuel mileage were rewarded, while other drivers, like Stewart, were penalized, as he ran out of time to get back into the lead. Instead of winning, Stewart wound up fifth.
Those disappointments are behind Stewart, as are the past four Sprint Cup races where Stewart's best finish is 11th. What's in front of Stewart is all that matters. On the docket of the two-time Sprint Cup champion is the Sylvania 300, where Stewart plans to light up his championship hopes with another impressive performance at New Hampshire.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Are you concerned at all about your performance in the last four races leading into the Chase?
"They're not going to give a championship trophy off the last four weeks, so, no, I'm not."
As far as a place to start the Chase goes, there's probably no better place than New Hampshire as far as you're concerned, right?
"I like starting (the Chase) at Loudon. It's a track that we run really well at. It's been good to us in the past. It's nice to have one of our stronger tracks right off the bat. Hopefully, if we have a good run there it will set the tone for the last nine weeks. I feel like it's one of our better tracks. We always consistently run really well there. I'm excited about starting there and hopefully getting a good run there and getting a good start in the Chase. It's a handling track. It's a driver's track to where you can help yourself out and move around. It doesn't seem like you can move around a lot, but from where I sit with the steering wheel, you can move around a lot and help yourself out. It's a fun place to start the Chase, and as we've seen in the past, that can be a place that can either get your Chase hopes off to a great start or they can be wiped out in one week."
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 than 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 Sprint Cup title, as you would become only the second 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 couple of 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."
Is there a favorite as the Chase begins at New Hampshire?
"Anybody that's in the Chase is a contender. But after Loudon this weekend, this thing could be totally upside down and you could have half the Chase field almost eliminated in one week. We've seen weird things happen, and it's one of those deals that you can't predict what's going to happen in the Chase. Every year, it's been different."
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."
Not only are you in the Chase, but your Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Ryan Newman, is also in the Chase. It's all pretty impressive for a first-year team -- one which you co-own. Did you envision this kind of success coming this quickly?
"Would we have bet on this at Daytona? No way. To get one car in the Chase-- but to have both cars, we are ecstatic. I couldn't wait to get to the shop on Monday and shake their hands and pat everybody on the back and say, 'Thank you' to everybody. This is a tough series, and to get two cars in the Chase is unbelievable. I'm very humbled by it. But I'm very thankful that we have the group of guys that we have. And I was always surrounded by good people at Joe Gibbs Racing, but there's something different when it's your own deal. There's a greater sense of pride when you know you've had a hand in making it be successful."
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, 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."