TONY STEWART Climate Change ATLANTA (Aug. 1, 2007) -- As the mercury has risen during these summer days, so too has Tony Stewart. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series has gone from ...
ATLANTA (Aug. 1, 2007) -- As the mercury has risen during these summer days, so too has Tony Stewart. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series has gone from answering the question, "When are you going to win another race?" to "Is there anyone who can beat you for the championship?" -- all in the span of three weeks.
Back-to-back wins at Chicagoland Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway have pundits pointing toward Stewart as the new favorite to challenge for this year's championship and the third of his career. But prior to his breakout win July 15 at Chicagoland -- ironically located in the same town as the defunct Joliet (Ill.) Prison -- Stewart was peppered with questions pertaining to his 20-race winless streak.
A dominant win at Chicagoland, where Stewart led six times for a race-high 106 laps, ended those questions. And after a rare off-weekend on the Nextel Cup calendar, Stewart returned for the series' next race at Indianapolis refreshed and ready to add a second Indy win to the one he scored in 2005. The Columbus, Ind.-native did just that, winning for the second time at his home track, and in familiar fashion to his Chicagoland win, as Stewart again led the most laps en route to victory.
Now Stewart is ready to add to the lore of Indy by becoming the seventh driver to win Indy and the Nextel Cup championship in the same season -- a feat Stewart pulled in 2005 when he won his second Nextel Cup title.
Next up on that march to the championship is Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, site of Sunday's Pennsylvania 500. The quirky, triangular-shaped track is part drag strip, part high-banked oval, part flat track, where if you're good in one section of the race track, you're typically struggling in another.
Stewart relishes the opportunity Pocono presents. He won there in June 2003, and in 17 career Nextel Cup starts at the 2.5-mile facility, he has five top-fives and 12 top-10s -- five of which have been seventh-place results (July 2006, July 2005, June 2002, July 2002 and June 2001). And in his last four races at Pocono, Stewart's average finish is fifth.
The car Stewart will use in the Pennsylvania 500 is brand new. Chassis No. 179 has had plenty of wind tunnel time, but zero practical time on the race track. It should prove of little matter, since the car Stewart used to win the past two races also had no track time when it debuted at Chicagoland, and Chassis No. 179 is a clone of that car.
Coming off back-to-back wins for the seventh time in his career, Stewart will look to do what he's never done before -- win three in a row.
It looks like you've officially entered your summer stretch, where you to tend to win races in bunches. Is there any particular reason why?
"It just seems like a normal year. This time of year, it seems like we get hot. We've even tried to sit down and figure out what we're missing in the spring -- why we can't do then what we're typically able to do now. It just seems like when the tracks gets hot and slippery that it suits my driving style and the setups Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) puts on the car."
While others might consider you a favorite for this year's championship, do you think of yourself that way?
"There's still a lot of racing to go. There are no guarantees. But I do feel like we're doing what we need to do to put ourselves in championship contention. And like I've always said, you go out and try to win races and the points take care of themselves. It's what we've been trying to do all year, and it's paying off now."
Indianapolis seems like it would be a good indicator of how a team will perform at Pocono, as both tracks have long straightaways and flat corners. Is that true?
"It's harder to pass at the Brickyard than it is at Pocono. There's a fair amount of room going into (turn) one at Pocono, and you can run two-wide there and you can go two-wide in (turn) three at the beginning of a run. But it's pretty tough to run two-wide through the corners at Indy. Still, a good run at Indy shows your flat track program is pretty good. But at the same time, it's no guarantee that you're going to run well at Pocono. Pocono is quite a bit bumpier than Indy is, so a good run at Indy won't guarantee you anything for Pocono. But it certainly won't hurt you, and the aero stuff that we do at Indy will be used at Pocono. So yeah, you can learn some stuff to take to Pocono."
From a driver's standpoint, what's your biggest challenge at Pocono?
"All three corners are different -- that's the most challenging part. It seems like you can always get your car good in two of the three corners, but the guys who are contending for the win are the guys who can get their car good for all three corners. That's a very hard thing to do -- get your car good through all three sections of the race track. It's a little different now because we don't go through transmission and gear changes like we have in the past where we tried different combinations to find more speed. With the gears NASCAR says you can run, it's made it a totally different style of racing compared to what we've had in year's past at Pocono. It's evened things out for everyone."
What's the most treacherous part of Pocono's layout?
"Probably the tunnel turn. Everybody realizes how fast they're going into (turn) one. And they know that if they wreck they're going to wreck hard. The tunnel turn is a little sneaky. It's a tight fit through there, and you don't really know how fast you're going until something bad happens."
Since Pocono has three distinct corners, where do you start with your race setup?
"We always go out and figure where I feel like I'm struggling the most, because that's where I feel like I'm going to make up the most time. It seems like if we can get our car to go through the tunnel turn well, then we're normally able to get The Home Depot Chevrolet to go through the rest of the race track well. The tunnel turn seems to be our toughest turn on the race track. Getting through turn two and the last corner of the race track that's flat, long and sweeping -- those seem to be the toughest two corners to get through. And if you're a little bit off, you're a bunch off. If there's a guy who can get all three of those corners right, then that's the guy who's going to win the race."
Coming down that front straightaway, the racing can get pretty wide. When and where do you have to get back in line to make it into that first corner?
"It just kind of funnels itself back into line before we get into (turn) one. Everybody tries to get back on the high side to make their entry into the corner, but sometimes it does get a little tight in there. But most times, you just do what you have to do to get The Home Depot Chevrolet back in line."
If you're down on horsepower at Pocono, are you pretty much out of contention?
"Yeah. If you're down on power at Pocono, you're a mid-pack car at best. You need power to go down that front straightaway, and if you don't have it, you're done."
Explain a lap around Pocono.
"Turn one is probably the easiest of the three -- you drive it in kind of deep and then try to float the car through the corner. You go down the backstretch and into the tunnel turn and it's basically one lane. It's flat and very line-sensitive. You've got to make sure you're right on your marks every lap when you go through there. Then you've got a short chute into turn three. It's a big, long corner and it too is very line-sensitive. With it being line-sensitive and the fact that we've got a straightaway that's three-quarters of a mile long after that, it's very important that you get through the last corner well. You need to come off the corner quickly so that you're not bogged down when you start down that long straightaway. Each corner has its challenges, and each one tends to present a different set of circumstances with each lap you make."
Well before you came to Pocono as a rookie in 1999, you raced at Pocono in a go-kart as a youth. What was that like?
"Years and years and years ago, 1986 I think, I ran the WKA (World Karting Association) Enduro Series. When we ran Pocono, we actually ran the majority of the big track backward. You went out on the front straightaway backward and then you turned into the road course in the infield and came back out on the speedway past the part where you'd run with the Nextel Cup car, but you'd turn back on the track and turn to the right. You'd go around the tunnel turn and then come back around. It was pretty neat, pretty different. You really didn't get a perspective of what it was like in a stock car, by any means, because you were going in the wrong direction in a go-kart that only went 105 mph. It was definitely a different perspective than what I experience there now."