Michigan II: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Extended Forecast Predicts More Heat ATLANTA (Aug. 14, 2007) -- The summer heat wave gripping much of the United States has been attributed to a number of triggers, from global warming and El Niño to an altered jet stream and a...

Extended Forecast Predicts More Heat

ATLANTA (Aug. 14, 2007) -- The summer heat wave gripping much of the United States has been attributed to a number of triggers, from global warming and El Niño to an altered jet stream and a huge ridge of high pressure. But one overlooked element to the scorching temperatures is the hot streak Tony Stewart has created in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.

The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing has won three of the last four races, including last Sunday's event at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road course. The notoriously late-blooming Stewart appears to be in full championship form here in late summer, for after going winless in a 20-race stretch dating back to November last year, Stewart has used back-to-back victories at Chicagoland Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway to position he and his Joe Gibbs Racing Team as favorites to win a third Nextel Cup championship.

Stewart's lone finish outside of victory lane was a sixth-place result Aug. 5 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. His four-race burn leading into Sunday's 3M Performance 400 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn has vaulted Stewart from seventh to fourth in the championship standings, and lopped 94 points off Jeff Gordon's lead. With only four races remaining before the cutoff for this year's 12-driver Chase for the Nextel Cup, Stewart has a healthy 506-point cushion over 13th-place Ryan Newman.

When the Chase begins, Stewart will be blessed with bonus points, as wins during the regular season are worth 10 points to start the final, 10-race Chase. Stewart will have at least 30 bonus points to start the Chase, and he'll look for more as the series visits Michigan, California, Bristol (Tenn.) and Richmond (Va.) -- a slate of venues where Stewart has notched five of his 32 career Nextel Cup wins (one at Michigan, none at California, one at Bristol and three at Richmond).

And once in the Chase, it appears Stewart will have help from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin. The 2006 Rookie of the Year and Chase contender is currently second in points, and appears well on his way to being a Chase driver for the second consecutive year. In fact, in what could be a precursor to the Chase, Stewart and Hamlin finished 1-2 at Watkins Glen, the first time Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have done so since Stewart and former Joe Gibbs Racing driver Bobby Labonte finished 1-2 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1999 -- Stewart's rookie year.

Stewart and Hamlin may also be joined in the Chase by their future teammate Kyle Busch. The 22-year-old Nextel Cup driver, who currently sits eighth in points, has been officially introduced as the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Team beginning in 2008. Presently with Hendrick Motorsports, Busch has four career Nextel Cup wins, with his most recent victory having come at Bristol in March.

With Michigan next up for the Nextel Cuppers, the extended forecast calls for continued heat by Stewart and his JGR brethren, both present and future.

It was recently announced that Kyle Busch will be a teammate to you beginning next year. What do you think about that?

"I'm excited. He'll be a great teammate. He's going to be a great asset to Joe Gibbs Racing. I think he's a great kid. He knows how to go fast. He's a great talent and he has a lot of natural driving ability. That's what you look for in a teammate. Kyle and I get along really well. He's aggressive like we are and I think that kind of an attitude works at Joe Gibbs Racing. When you get people in a team that have the same aggressiveness, it makes the whole team even better."

Your win at Watkins Glen featured a spirited battle with series point leader Jeff Gordon. While Gordon has won four races and has a commanding point lead, you seem to be the driver that is best positioned to challenge for this year's championship. Was Watkins Glen a preview of what we'll see the rest of the season?

"I hope what we've seen in the last four races is what we're going to see in the Chase. I hope for every four races we run, we win three of them and the other ones, I hope we run second. Obviously, there's a lot of racing to go, and you see how easy and how quick a string can end and go just the opposite for you. We hope that we're getting hot at the right time, and that we take the next two or three weeks and lock ourselves into the Chase to where we can, in those last couple of races, just strictly go for the win and get those extra bonus points. Then hopefully, once the Chase starts, we can be on a run like we are right now. I feel like we're in the best position of anybody right now with what's happened three out of the last four weeks. It's just a matter of keeping your fingers crossed and hoping that carries on the rest of the year."

What is your approach heading into the last four races before the Chase? Since you're comfortably in the top-12, can you afford to take some risks?

"You have to be cautiously aggressive. You still have to keep in mind that if you take a chance and don't finish a race, that you'll lose a lot of points and the 10 bonus points you thought you might gain for the Chase won't happen either. You have to do the same things that have gotten you to victory lane in the past. You can't afford to take too many unnecessary chances. Being in a comfortable spot right now, the main thing for us is to do the things we've been doing to keep us in position where we can win races each week and get those bonus points for the Chase."

Do you feel that for drivers in your position, instead of point racing at the end of the year, you're point racing now? Because the way the point system is designed for the final 10 races, you have to go out and try to win each and every race to gain as many points as possible. That wasn't always the case in year's past.

"We've got a couple of weeks here where we can try things and have that flexibility. But the good thing is that we're not struggling and having to try new things. We have the ability to do that if we want to because of where we are in the points, but regardless we're in a good spot. Our performance the last couple of weeks has shown that we're finally hitting our marks. For us, it's just a matter of going out and doing our thing now."

Casual observers seem to say that the racing on D-shaped ovals is boring. But drivers seem to like it because they're able to move around and use multiple grooves. Is that true at Michigan?

"Yes, you can definitely move around at Michigan. The thing about Michigan is that it's been there for so long now that there's no one, specific groove anymore. You can literally race from the white line on the apron all the way to the wall. That's the groove. Depending on how your car is driving, you can move around on the race track and help yourself. That's what makes Michigan such a fun race track for the drivers. The drivers can really help themselves out if they don't have a car that's working right. You can move around on the race track and find a spot that helps your car do what you need it to do."

Where does Michigan rank in terms of all the 1.5- to 2-mile D-shaped ovals that are on the Nextel Cup circuit?

"It's so wide and there are so many lines that you can run -- that's what makes Michigan fun for drivers. You have to figure out how to gauge your momentum and know where you want to be on that race track when you enter those corners. Michigan's layout gives the drivers the flexibility to really make a difference in their car's handling."

At what point do you start to move around on the race track to find a better handle for your race car?

"As soon as you feel like you're not where you need to be. If you feel like you're slower than the pace you need to be running, you're going to move up the race track and find a place that helps balance your race car. Really, from the drop of the green flag, you do it from there on out."

What percentages would you put on a comparison between the importance of horsepower and handling at Michigan?

"It's probably about 50/50. You need to have an aerodynamic car, but you've got to have the horsepower to pull it, too. You can't have one and not the other and expect to go to Michigan and win the race."

How big a role does drafting play at Michigan?

"It's big since Michigan is such a momentum track. You can work the draft pretty well, and if there are some guys racing up in front of you, it'll help you catch up to them. It's a place where you really have to watch and pay attention to the draft."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch
Teams Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing