Phoenix: Tony Stewart preview

Tony Stewart Phoenix a home away from home. ATLANTA (Nov. 5, 2002) - Almost seven years before Columbus, Ind., native Tony Stewart pulled his ...

Tony Stewart
Phoenix a home away from home.

ATLANTA (Nov. 5, 2002) - 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 Winston 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, and four years from his Indy Racing League (IRL) championship.

But after qualifying second to Davey Hamilton - now an IRL veteran, and leading 31 of the 50 laps before finishing second to Mike Bliss - the current point leader in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, 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.

Nearly 10 years later, Stewart returns to the desert mile for Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500k on the cusp of earning his first Winston Cup championship. He enters the penultimate race on the marathon-like, 36-race Winston Cup schedule with a 112-point lead over his only championship pursuer - Mark Martin.

With a win at Phoenix and a 26th place finish by Martin, Stewart can win the title outright. With a win and a 13th place finish by Martin, all Stewart would have to do is start the season finale at Homestead (Fla.) and the championship would be his. And if a win weren't in the cards, an 11th place finish or better by Stewart in each of the last two races would secure his first NASCAR championship.

To have Phoenix serve as a possible championship venue would be a fitting tribute to Stewart. Only 312 miles separate him from that prospect.

Your most recent win at Phoenix came behind the wheel of a USAC Midget in January of 2000. Talk about that.

"It was pretty cool because I actually won twice that day, once as a driver and once as an owner with Jason Leffler. The Midget race is the one that I won as a driver. I ran against Leffler, Davey Hamilton, Ryan Newman, Dave Steele, Billy Boat - all the USAC regulars. I drove for Steve Lewis, who's the same guy that I won with at Irwindale (Calif.) two years ago on Turkey Night, and last year at South Boston (Va.) on the Saturday night before the (fall) Martinsville (Va.) race."

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 Racing League, Supermodifieds, and of course, Winston Cup with The Home Depot Pontiac. So, I've logged a bunch of laps there. I even made my 100th Winston Cup start there last year. Now I'm running for a championship. 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 that you made over the years at Phoenix help prepare you for when you first went there in a 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 The Home Depot Pontiac. 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 that neat dogleg on the backstretch which adds a lot of character to Phoenix."

The second win of your Winston Cup career came at Phoenix in 1999. How important was that win for you and the team?

"It was great to show everyone that the first win (at Richmond, Va.) wasn't a fluke. I mean, I was happy about my first win, but the biggest pleasure I got out of it was giving the guys their first win. Then to go to Phoenix and get that win, that was a personal victory because that track is like a home away from home for me."

Is racing in the Southwest like a family reunion of sorts, because there are so many people in that area who you've met through 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 Winston 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 Pontiac to run well."

How have the championships you've earned in other racing series prepared you for what you're dealing with now?

"I'm relying on it a lot, to be honest. I haven't been in this position before in Winston Cup, but I have run for championships in other divisions. I haven't been nervous. I haven't been uptight about it. Two races aren't a lot, obviously, but it is when the points are as close as they are. That's what has kept me in the frame of mind to keep on doing what we're doing. We're not going to try and reinvent the wheel in the next two weeks. We'll just keep on doing what we've been doing."

In comparison to the other championships you've won in karting, USAC and the Indy Racing League, where would a Winston Cup championship rank?

"I felt like I raced against some of the best short-track and oval racers in the country when we won in the Indy Racing League. Any time you win a championship, I don't care what kind of division it's in, it means something because you're racing the best in that field. If you take these guys (in Winston Cup) and put them in Midgets and Sprint cars and ran for a championship there, it would mean just as much as running in stock cars. It doesn't matter to me what kind of car it is, you're racing top-notch competitors and top-notch teams, and you know that you did a better job than them to win it. It would be very satisfying."

>From being 43rd in points after the Daytona 500 to leading the points now, along with everything that has gone on in between, how has your relationship with your crew chief - Greg Zipadelli - allowed you to persevere and contend for your first Winston Cup championship?

"If anything has changed with all of the stuff that's gone on this year, my relationship with Greg is probably stronger. He's the one person who has single-handedly carried this team to where it is. It hasn't been me. It hasn't been Joe Gibbs. It's been Greg Zipadelli."

Since you took the point lead at Talladega (Ala.) in early October, have you tapped into Bobby Labonte's experience of leading the points, as he's your teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing?

"I'm sticking to my own program. That's how I got to this point. As much as I value Bobby's opinion about everything that we do, I've not run for a Winston Cup championship, but I've run for a lot of championships in my career, and they all boiled down to one thing - being consistent and being strong at the end of the season. That's something we've typically done over the last three years. Going out and winning races, being competitive and having top-fives as many times as we could has gotten us to where we are. Our approach right now is no different than it has been. There's a reason we've gotten to this point. It's because we raced hard. You don't change that formula now with two races to go."

-jgr/hdr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Jason Leffler , Ryan Newman , Davey Hamilton , Billy Boat , Mike Bliss , Mark Martin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing