TONY STEWART Hitting on All Cylinders ATLANTA (Aug. 13, 2008) -- They're unfocused. They've lost their edge. They're not on the same page. They're already looking toward next year. Whatever. After back-to-back runner-up finishes, "they" have...
Hitting on All Cylinders
ATLANTA (Aug. 13, 2008) -- They're unfocused. They've lost their edge. They're not on the same page. They're already looking toward next year.
After back-to-back runner-up finishes, "they" have vaulted from 10th to seventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship point standings. Needless to say, Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing team are hitting on all cylinders entering Sunday's 3M Performance 400 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
Despite still being winless 22 races into the 2008 Sprint Cup campaign, Stewart and Co. are solidly in the top-12 with a 138-point buffer over 13th-place Clint Bowyer, the first driver on the outside looking in of the 12-driver Chase for the Championship -- a field that will be set in stone after just four more races.
Stewart's familiar orange and black No. 20 Home Depot Toyota is back in its familiar spot at the front of the field. And now that the series returns to Michigan, it's a trend that ought to continue for the two-time Sprint Cup champion, as the two-mile oval in Michigan's Irish Hills has yielded seven top-threes, nine top-fives and 13 top-10s in 19 career Sprint Cup starts. And in 10 of his last 12 Sprint Cup races at Michigan, Stewart has finished in the top-10.
Those anecdotes are just a few of many from Stewart's NASCAR career at Michigan. Stewart also--
* Scored his fifth career Sprint Cup win at Michigan in June 2000. He started 28th in that race, the farthest back any Sprint Cup driver has come to win at Michigan.
* Holds the record for greatest improvement from a starting position. Stewart started 41st in the 2006 Citizens Bank 400 and advanced 38 positions to finish third, besting the previous mark of 36 places earned by Jimmy Spencer (40th to fourth) in the 1996 June race. "I made sure I crossed the start/finish line at the green dead last," said Stewart about lagging behind at the start of the race. "I made sure (A.J.) Allmendinger got by me so I could say I went from dead last to wherever we finished. From 43rd to third, that's a pretty good day. I'm not going to complain about that at all."
* Earned his best starting spot at Michigan in June 2003 when he qualified second to then Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte, marking the first and only time Joe Gibbs Racing cars sat on the front row for a point-paying Sprint Cup race.
* Won the third round of IROC XXV at Michigan in 2001 for his first IROC win.
Augmenting Stewart's history at Michigan is the car he'll be using in the 3M Performance 400. Chassis No. 209 will make its fourth career start at Michigan, and in its three previous races, it's led at least one lap. Its two most recent starts at Chicagoland and the June race at Michigan, respectively, resulted in fifth-place finishes, while its debut race in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway is the most remembered. There, Stewart started 31st and led four times for 23 laps and was set to collect his 33rd career win. But with a five-and-a-half second lead over second-place Kasey Kahne, a flat right-front tire three laps short of the finish relegated Stewart and Chassis No. 209 to an undeserved 18th-place result.
Take Stewart's recent history, his history at Michigan and the history of the car he'll use to lap Michigan's D-shaped oval, and the projected top-performer in Sunday's 3M Performance 400 could very well be Stewart--again.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Despite not having any wins so far this year, have your back-to-back second-place finishes made you a little more comfortable with where you are in the point standings with only four races remaining before the Chase?
"I am a lot more comfortable with the momentum we have going right now. I think the last two weeks has shown how focused our team is at the job at hand. It makes me proud of our guys and proud of our whole organization."
What is your approach heading into the last four races before the Chase?
"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. 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?
"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."
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."
Where does Michigan rank in terms of all the 1.5- to 2-mile D-shaped ovals that are on the Sprint 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."
With Michigan being so close to Canada, there will be a lot of Canadian fans and fans of Canadian and Sprint Cup rookie Patrick Carpentier. After a little more than half a season racing with him and watching him make the transition from Champ Cars to stock cars, what impresses you about him?
"I like his attitude actually. That's one of the first things you notice as a driver. Especially when it comes time to qualify -- he always seems to rise to the occasion during qualifying when it's time to make that lap. For us, qualifying isn't that big of a deal because we're a car that's locked in, but his race depends on that qualifying run and he always steps up for that run. He always makes something spectacular happen and keep himself in the show that way. Obviously, just seat time helps with the races and he understands where your car needs to be and how to communicate with your crew and what you need during the race. It's hard to teach guys how to qualify. That's something you can't really do. They have to be able to do that on their own. You've got to be able to step up, and that's something that he's done a great job of this year."