Tony Stewart "Not So Fast, My Friend!" ATLANTA (Nov. 3, 2004) - Prior to last Sunday's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, one might've been inclined to think that only the top-three drivers had a realistic shot at winning...
"Not So Fast, My Friend!"
ATLANTA (Nov. 3, 2004) - Prior to last Sunday's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, one might've been inclined to think that only the top-three drivers had a realistic shot at winning this year's championship.
The point leader - Kurt Busch - led with a 96-point margin over second-place Jeff Gordon and had a 125-point edge on third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. Fourth-place Jimmie Johnson was 207 points back, fifth-place Mark Martin was 224 points behind, and sixth-place Tony Stewart was 246 points arrears. Anyone outside of the top-three was done, right?
To borrow a line from ESPN College GameDay's Lee Corso, "Not so fast, my friend!"
Busch's engine grenaded just 51 laps into last Sunday's race, relegating him to a 42nd place finish. Gordon broke a rear end gear and finished 34th. And Earnhardt crashed 13 laps from the finish to wind up 33rd.
Stewart, meanwhile, logged a solid ninth-place finish and chipped 101 points from his deficit. Entering the third to last race of the season this Sunday at Phoenix, Stewart is sixth in the standings and only 145 points behind Busch, who despite his hardship of a week ago, maintained the point lead.
Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, and Corso, analyst for ESPN College GameDay built by The Home Depot, share more than just a common sponsor. Both seem to enjoy bucking the trend and going against the pundits to pick a winner. And while Corso does it by donning an oversized hat of the college football team of his choice, Stewart does it by wearing a full-face helmet and driving at speeds approaching 200 mph.
As Corso sits on the GameDay set this weekend from ESPN's home base in Bristol, Conn., Stewart sits behind the wheel of his Home Depot Chevrolet this weekend at Phoenix. Both are looking for an upset.
Of the three remaining tracks on the Nextel Cup schedule, you've won at two of them - Phoenix and Homestead. And at Darlington (S.C.) - the penultimate race before the season finale at Homestead - you've scored two top-fives and six top-10s. Do these remaining tracks play to your strengths?
"We'd like to think so. Obviously, they're tracks we like. So, it definitely doesn't hurt your chances when they're tracks that you enjoy going to and that you've done well with in the past. It definitely gives us something to look forward to in the next three weeks."
Are there any drivers within the top-10 that you're keeping your eye on?
"I'm not really sure that we have to watch out for anybody other than some guys that might change the outcome of a race by getting into an accident with us.
"You still have to race everybody just like you always have. The format is a weird format. In a typical playoff situation the top-10 guys would just race each other. But in our situation, we have to race the other 33 guys that we're running with each week, not just the top-10. So you really have to do the same things that you've always had to do. You just go out and try to win the races and hope you get enough points to put you where you need to be at the end of the season."
Did the experiences of competing for championships in go-karts, USAC, the Indy Racing League, and of course, your NASCAR championship in 2002, better prepare you for this year's championship chase?
"Where we're at in the points right now - sixth and 145 points out of the lead - I don't think it really has much affect on us. It's not like we have a lot of pressure on us, because we really have nothing to lose at this point. As far as I'm concerned, there's no difference between sixth and 10th. I'm worried about going forward, not going backward.
"But to be honest, I think everybody who's in this top-10 championship chase has been in this position before. I think they've all been through a similar situation like this, obviously not at the Cup level, but at some time in their career. So I think everybody's got an idea of how to deal with it all."
Last year when you raced at Phoenix there were some noticeable differences to the race track. The outside wall stretching along turn two and onto the backstretch had been pushed back 12 feet, and a tunnel underneath turn four had been installed, with new pavement throughout the corner as a result of the construction. Can you describe the changes to Phoenix from a driver's standpoint?
"The most noticeable change was the wall off of turn two where they moved it back 12 feet. And there used to be a gap between the end of that wall and where the wall to the dogleg along the backstretch started. That's all been eliminated. The wall that they moved back 12 feet now continues all the way around the backstretch. They've also put a tunnel in right off of turn four, and in doing that, they removed the Goodyear pedestrian bridge that was a pretty historic landmark at PIR. Those were the only changes that we noticed, but they were some pretty big changes to not notice."
Did the changes affect the racing any?
"Coming off turn two and onto the dogleg was always a pretty good passing opportunity because that end of the track was tighter. It was difficult to get through. With the wall being moved out 12 feet we can run faster through that section of the track. It doesn't lend to as many passing opportunities as it had in the past.
"The overall changes, especially the part where they had to deal with the surface of the race track, I think they did an excellent job. Laying a tunnel in the race track and then having to patch that area back over - that's the smoothest patch job I've ever driven across."
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, 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 that 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 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 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."