TONY STEWART West Coast Home-stretch ATLANTA (Nov. 7, 2005) - Almost seven years before Columbus, Ind., native Tony Stewart pulled his ...
West Coast Home-stretch
ATLANTA (Nov. 7, 2005) - Almost seven years before Columbus, Ind., native Tony Stewart pulled his #20 Home Depot Pontiac into Phoenix International Raceway's victory lane for his second career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series win, he was wheeling a USAC Silver Crown car around the one-mile oval. It was February of 1993 and Stewart was 21 years old, an up-and-coming race car driver in the open-wheel ranks, making his first start at the Copper World Classic in the season's Silver Crown opener.
He was still a year away from claiming his first USAC championship in the National Midget category, two years from his unprecedented USAC Triple Crown - when he won the National Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown titles all in the same season - three years from his first Indianapolis 500 start, four years from his IRL IndyCar Series championship and nine years from his NASCAR Winston Cup Series title.
But after qualifying second to Davey Hamilton - a former IRL veteran - and leading 31 of the 50 laps before finishing second to Mike Bliss - the 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion - Stewart realized he could make a living as a professional race car driver. The money earned from his second-place effort - $3,500 - made his eight-hour days at five dollars an hour at the hometown machine shop seem unnecessary. Packing the rest of the 1993 season with Silver Crown, Sprint and Midget races across the nation, Stewart's quick ascent up the racing ladder began.
As Stewart made that ascent, much time and many a lap were spent at Phoenix International Raceway. He has raced at the desert oval in six different types of race cars - USAC Midgets, USAC Silver Crown cars, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, a NASCAR Busch Series car and a Nextel Cup car.
For Stewart, it's the best way to spend a weekend at his West Coast home away from home. And in this weekend's visit via the Checker Auto Parts 500k, Stewart can edge ever closer to a second Cup Series title.
The driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet leads the championship point standings by 38 over nearest pursuer Jimmie Johnson. With Stewart's series-leading 16 top-fives and 24 top-10s along with an average finish of sixth in his last 20 races, Stewart simply needs to maintain his front-running consistency to nab that second title. And as the penultimate race on this year's schedule, Phoenix is a fitting venue for Stewart to stake his claim on the championship finale in Homestead (Fla.).
How comfortable are you with just two races to go?
"With the last couple of weeks the way they've been, we've been able to stay pretty consistent in our point margin. With only two weeks to go it probably makes it a little easier on us to just worry about doing what we've been doing. That's all we've been doing all year anyway. We haven't really been concerned with anybody else. We've just focused on what we need to do and it's working."
Are you getting the feeling that this championship is going your way?
"Not necessarily. We're just out there doing our job. The good thing is that we're just going out and doing what we've done all year. We go out and try to win the race. And if we can't win the race, we're not going to take any chances to win it. We'll just take what we can get and do it safely. Take Atlanta - we were a top-10 car all day, we led a lap and we finished ninth. From our standpoint, we did what we had to do by having a solid, consistent day. The other guys we're racing, at times were either in front of us or behind us. We just stayed the most consistent all day."
How careful are you in practice and in race traffic with two races to go?
"We're not really worried about it. I'm going out to win these last two races. I'm going at it just like I do every week. There's no reason to do anything differently. There's nothing that you do now that you didn't do before. It's just the end of the year and there's more on the line, but you still do the same things that got you here."
Because of all the racing you did at Phoenix before you became a Nextel Cup driver, do you consider Phoenix your West Coast home away from home?
"When Buddy Jobe (former owner and president of Phoenix International Raceway) had this facility he was the one who told me that Phoenix was my West Coast home away from home. And I didn't realize it until I came to Phoenix when I was with the IRL and saw how many test sessions we had at Phoenix and how many laps I had put in there before a race even started. Whether it was tire testing or chassis testing the IRL car or a USAC Midget or a Sprint car, I spent a lot of time at Phoenix International Raceway. I really do feel like it's my West Coast home away from home.
"When we come out to Phoenix two times this year as opposed to just once like we have in the past, it'll be like a homecoming each time. It's a place where I feel comfortable. I know every inch of that race track. I've driven six different types of cars there, and between all those cars I've run at least five different lines. I feel like I know it better than most of the other folks who've just run stock cars there."
How long have you been racing at Phoenix?
"I started racing there in '93 when I ran a Silver Crown car. And since then, I've run USAC Midgets, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, Busch cars, and of course, Nextel Cup in The Home Depot car. So, I've logged a bunch of laps there. I even made my 100th Nextel Cup start there three years ago. To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix, I guess you could say it's the place where my career came full-circle."
Did all those laps you made over the years at Phoenix help prepare you for when you first went there in a Nextel Cup car?
"I think so. With every different division of car that I've run there, I've ended up running a different line. With that, I've learned a lot about that race track and where the sweet spots are on that race track. I was used to the place when it came time to run there in Nextel Cup. I knew a lot about that race track and the different places that can make you go fast or slow. It gave me an opportunity to adapt a lot more to the car than to the race track."
When you talk about "sweet spots," what do you mean?
"You learn about all the bumps and where all the bumps are on the race track. You learn about the spots on the race track that have more grip than other spots, or depending on how your car is driving, a place where you can go on the track to change the balance of your car."
Phoenix is a flat track, but is it like the other flat tracks on the circuit, or is it an entity all its own?
"Everybody calls it a flat track, but to me one end is flat and one end has banking to it. It's a unique place because the radius of the corners are different on each end, the banking of the corners are different on each end, and then you have the dogleg on the backstretch."
Is racing in the Southwest like a family reunion of sorts, because there are so many people in that area who you've met during your racing career?
"With the racing I've done with USAC out West, I've developed a lot of friendships and relationships with people. Running Nextel Cup, we don't have the opportunity to go out to that area but a couple of times a year. The small amount of time that we get to spend out in Phoenix for the Cup race is very valuable to me and all my friends out there. And with all of those friends and fans in that area, there's a fair amount of pride that I take in racing at Phoenix. So for me, it's a place that's very important for The Home Depot Chevrolet to run well."