TONY STEWART Wicked Good Comin' Inta New Hampsha ATLANTA (July 12, 2005) - The past four weeks have been good to NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart. With a second-place finish at Michigan, back-to-back wins at Sonoma (Calif.) and...
Wicked Good Comin' Inta New Hampsha
ATLANTA (July 12, 2005) - The past four weeks have been good to NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Tony Stewart. With a second-place finish at Michigan, back-to-back wins at Sonoma (Calif.) and Daytona (Fla.), and a fifth-place finish last Sunday at Chicagoland, the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing is solidly third in the championship point standings. And with 2005 being his seventh year in the sport, it's his best point position ever with 18 races in the books.
Another 18 races remain, however, and that suits Stewart just fine. The second half of the Nextel Cup schedule is where Stewart has typically shown his strength. The fact that it's come a little early in 2005 makes it all the better.
"We're at that point of the season where the tracks are getting hot and slippery, and that's what we like," said Stewart, the 2002 series champion and a 21-time race winner. "When guys can't hold it wide open and they can't sit there on high-grip tracks and they actually have to drive these things, that's when we start getting fast."
And at the next stop on the series' schedule - New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon - Stewart has proven to be fast. He has three top-threes, six top-fives and seven top-10s in his 12 career Nextel Cup starts at the 1.058-mile oval. Amongst that total was a win in July of 2000, and not amongst that total was his 1998 victory behind the wheel of an Indy car when New Hampshire played host to the Indy Racing League.
Stewart's penchant for winning is obvious, and he looks to improve upon his New Hampshire statistics as well as his career statistics in Sunday's New England 300.
You tested at New Hampshire July 5-6. How did it go and do you expect your test to translate into a good run at New Hampshire?
"I don't know what to expect. There weren't a ton of us up there. I think there were five cars each day. I think we had an awesome test. Jimmie Johnson was there and we were just a little bit quicker than him. But I've been to test there with Jeff Gordon and when he came back for the race he was a tenth quicker than us. So, I'm not too locked in to how my feelings are about the test. I think we've got a good car for there. There wasn't a Roush car there, so I'm interested to see what they do when they get there. But we at least had one Hendrick car there and it felt like we were reasonably competitive compared to them."
With only seven test dates to work with, how do you manage them, especially with the advent of The Chase, where the final 10 races are worth so much?
"We have one more two-day test left which we're going to save for Homestead (Fla.). I think we've got either three or four one-day tests left. We plan around that. The hard thing is when you've got a new rules package like this, it makes you want to use them at the beginning of the year at a track you're going to twice because it gives you a heads-up on what you're doing for the season. But at the same time, you want to save those tests for later in the year when the tracks are a little warmer so that you can dial your car in for those conditions instead."
New Hampshire is one of the handful of impound races on the Nextel Cup schedule, where you practice on Friday, qualify on Saturday and don't touch the car until the race on Sunday. What are your thoughts on the impound procedure?
"If anything, I've always thought this year when we had the impound races, that it was a better deal. The old format, we always used to spend two hours in practice to run two laps (of qualifying), and then we switched the cars over and we got an hour and 45 minutes of practice to prepare ourselves to run 300 laps. It never really made a lot of sense to me. The impound deal is just a lot easier for everybody. You get more practice in race trim, and it gives the guys some time off on Saturday to relax a little bit. With the schedules the way they are right now, none of us are getting the rest we need anyway, let alone with having to do qualifying set-ups and race set-ups on top of that."
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."
You and your crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, have the longest tenured driver-crew chief relationship in the garage area at seven years and counting. What allows you two to work so well together?
"I think the biggest thing is that we're so much alike. We didn't know each other when they first put us together. I would have tripped over him and not known who he was until the day I was introduced to him. But it didn't take long to figure out how much our personalities were a lot alike and how much our desire to win was a lot alike. I think that's really been the glue that's held us all together all along. We think a lot alike. He's obviously a better group leader than I am. He's been the team leader from day one. He's been able to keep everybody pumped up and tried to keep me out of trouble in bad times. But to me, it's like having a big brother who's a couple of years older than me. To him, it's probably like having a younger brother. No matter what happens with the rest of our careers - if we never win another race or another championship from here on out - we consider each other family. When you have a working relationship like we do, where we're with each other as much as we are with our friends and family, that's something that's very important. At this point in the game, not only have Zippy and I been together for a long time, but so have the crew guys. We win as a team and we lose as a team. That's the attitude we've kept. We'll probably always be that way."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet and a native of Berlin, Conn.:
What are your thoughts on having the longest active driver-crew chief relationship in the Nextel Cup Series?
"I think it's a cool thing. I take some personal pride in that. We've done a good job with working together. We've definitely had some good times and some bad times, and with the bad times we've always gotten through them. We've got to continue to work on making the improvements that we need to from last year so that we perform to the best of our ability, which is always the bottom line. What happens a lot of times is that a relationship can get stale. The longer you stay together the harder it sometimes is to work together. I know that sounds contradictory. In some ways it's easier because you know the person and the personality, but at the same time the longer you're together the harder it is to be honest with one another because you've become better friends. And the closer you are with a friend the harder it is to tell that friend what sometimes need to be said, no matter how harsh. There's a fine line that you walk between having respect as a friend and having respect for the person that you work with. You can't let it get in the way of doing what needs to be done to perform."
Is that what chemistry means in the driver-crew chief relationship?
"You can call it chemistry, but I look at is as having confidence in each other. I'm going to do whatever I can for him and in return he's going to drive as hard as he can every lap for everybody involved."
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 can you 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."