It All Began at Michigan ATLANTA (June 14, 2006) - At this point last year, Tony Stewart was annoyed. Tenth in points with no wins, the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet watched as drivers from the Hendrick and Roush stables ran ...
It All Began at Michigan
ATLANTA (June 14, 2006) - At this point last year, Tony Stewart was annoyed.
Tenth in points with no wins, the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet watched as drivers from the Hendrick and Roush stables ran the table in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. Frustration peaked at Michigan, where in the 15th race of the season Stewart finished second, despite leading a race-high 97 laps.
The race victor was Roush Racing's Greg Biffle, whose win was his fifth of the season and the eighth scored by Roush Racing - both of which were series' bests.
Hendrick Motorsports, the other dominant team of the season's first half, laid claim to five other victories. Only two non-Roush/Hendrick drivers had taken a checkered flag - Kevin Harvick of Richard Childress Racing at Bristol (Tenn.) and Evernham Motorsports' Kasey Kahne at Richmond (Va.). In 15 races Roush and Hendrick drivers had combined to win 13 of them.
As Stewart stalked from pit road to Michigan's garage area, he wondered aloud, "What do we have to do to win a race?" Anyone else not in a Roush Ford or a Hendrick Chevrolet wondered the same thing.
The race following Michigan offered a reprieve to the Nextel Cuppers. It was the road course in Sonoma (Calif.). The anti-oval allowed drivers to drive their cars by turning left and right, downshifting and upshifting. The aerodynamic traits that so profoundly affected handling on the ovals were nowhere to be found on the 2-mile road course.
Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli welcomed the change of pace, and after taking the checkered flag for their first win of the season, set the pace for a torrid summer streak.
The very next race was the 400-miler under the lights at Daytona (Fla.). Stewart dominated, leading all but nine laps of the 160-lap contest. It was his first point-paying restrictor plate win and the fourth time in his Nextel Cup career that he had scored back-to-back victories.
But even with two straight wins under his belt, Stewart felt that his newfound strength had more to do with the schedule rather than where the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Team stood amidst the Roush/Hendrick juggernaut.
A road course race and a restrictor plate race are anomalies on the Nextel Cup schedule. The bread and butter of the 36-race marathon that lasts from February through November are intermediate ovals, and that's where Roush and Hendrick had excelled.
The 1.5-mile D-shaped oval at Chicagoland was next up on the schedule, and it was there where a strong fifth-place finish was earned.
"That was a key weekend for us to back up our performance from Michigan," said Stewart. "I think we showed that we had caught up with the Roush and Hendrick teams a little bit. We didn't win that race. In fact, we never led a lap. But we were a contender all day and we were right in that mix with the Hendrick and Roush cars. It solidified Joe Gibbs Racing as one of two or three teams that had a shot at winning the championship."
Stewart followed Chicagoland with a dominating win at New Hampshire, where he led six times for 232 of the race's 300 laps. The next race at Pocono (Pa.) yielded a respectable seventh-place effort, and in retrospect, appeared to be a slight dip in the No. 20 team's performance.
Indianapolis - Stewart's Holy Grail - opened the month of August after a rare weekend off. Despite the layoff, the No. 20 team never missed a beat, as Stewart led a race-high 44 laps to capture a win at a race track he said he would've traded his 2002 series championship for. But not only did Stewart not have to trade his championship for the win, he positioned himself for a second championship when he took over the point lead.
Watkins Glen (N.Y.), the second and final road course race on the calendar, followed Indy, and so too did Stewart's breakneck pace. He led 83 of the 92 laps and drove to a seemingly effortless victory. It was his fifth career road course win, his third road course win in a row, and it marked the fifth time in his Nextel Cup career where he had scored back-to-back victories.
Stewart didn't add to his win total after his triumph at The Glen, but his seven top-fives, 11 top-10s and 655 laps led in the 14 races that followed did add to his championship total.
One year after beginning a summer hot streak that culminated with his second championship in four years, Stewart returns to Michigan ready to make it three championships in five years.
Last year when you left Michigan, you went on to earn five wins in seven races. Had you experienced anything like that at any other point in your racing career?
"I'll be honest, I've had zones where I've finished in the top-three when I was in Midgets and Sprint Cars where I could go week-in and week-out and not fall out of the top-three. But to win five out of seven and be in the top-five for the rest of the season was a pretty good record. I know Zippy (Greg Zipadelli, crew chief) was proud of it. I was extremely proud of it. For us to win at Daytona, Indy, Sonoma, Watkins Glen and Loudon - to win on all those different disciplines really showed how diverse our program was. It's a tribute to Zippy and the guys and the jobs they do."
How optimistic do you feel about going back to Michigan where your hot streak began?
"I'm really excited. That's where the run really started. It's just one of those tracks in a string of tracks where we started running well. I can't think of a better place to go back to as we head into the summer."
You are just past the halfway mark for the Chase for the Championship cutoff Sept. 10 at Richmond. With roughly two-and-a-half years of the revised point system under your belt, what's your impression?
"I think it turned out fine. I liked it the way it was, but with the old system I would've been worried every week about where we stood. But now? I can't even tell how many points out of the lead we are because I don't even know. The good thing about the new points system is that it gives the good teams that have historically been in the top-10 the flexibility to try things, knowing that if you have a bad week it's not going to be that dramatic. But the guys who are 15th to 20th in points are trying to figure out what they've got to do to get into the top-10. Their mindset is that instead of having 36 weeks to get it done, they've got to get it done in 26 weeks. But the moral of the story is still the same - if you get into that top-10 you better have your stuff ready to go for that last 10-week stretch and not have any mistakes, because mistakes in that final, 10-race sprint will cost you big."
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."
What was your best memory from winning the June Michigan race in 2000?
"It was raining, and we'd already had one rain delay and then we got the lead and Dale Earnhardt was right behind us. And I know that for six straight laps I overdrove the entry to every corner because I knew he was going to overdrive it trying to get me loose. I think our lap times probably slowed down about three-tenths a lap for those six laps. But everybody was overdriving the corners trying to make up time. I remember when I got out of the car - I was pretty stoked to beat Earnhardt - but I remember he walked up, put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Have fun doing all those interviews on Monday and Tuesday.' He just grinned and walked off."