TONY STEWART No Need to Clench When You're Clinched ATLANTA (Sept. 5, 2005) - For some drivers competing in Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, 400 laps around the ...
No Need to Clench When You're Clinched
ATLANTA (Sept. 5, 2005) - For some drivers competing in Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, 400 laps around the three-quarter mile oval will be wrought with anxiety, frustration and potential elation/dejection.
Richmond is the cutoff race to make NASCAR's playoff-style Chase for the Championship, where the top-10 drivers in the series' point standings become eligible to compete for the championship during the season's final 10 races. Those on the outside looking in will be 11th or lower in the standings, and a handful of drivers, notably Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Elliott Sadler, are desperately trying to maintain their top-10 point standing or earn one of the last remaining spots in the top-10. The scenario ensures a pressure-packed weekend.
But for Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, his perch atop the point standings keeps him well above the craziness associated with making the Chase.
Stewart clinched a spot in The Chase with a fifth-place finish three weeks ago at Michigan. And while not exactly on easy street since then, as there are still races to be won and a 10-race dash to the finish to ready for, Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team successfully removed themselves from the hubbub that swirls around making the Chase.
And Richmond - a track where Stewart has won three Cup races and two NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races - provides Stewart and Co. the ideal venue to do what they do best, and that's race to win. There are no points to worry about, as their commanding 209-point lead gets wiped out when the top-10 driver's points are recalibrated. Each position will be separated by a mere five points, with the 10th place driver a scant 45 points arrears Stewart.
With nothing to lose and their 25th career Nextel Cup win to gain, the #20 Home Depot Racing Team has brought a brand new chassis to Richmond. If Chassis No. 103 proves successful, then it's yet another weapon in the #20 team's arsenal. If not, they will know why it didn't run as well as they would've liked before the final 10-race stretch begins.
Either way, Richmond is shaping up to be a win-win for Stewart, regardless of the outcome.
A lot of people thought the race two weeks ago at Bristol (Tenn.) might be an overly aggressive race because of its tight confines and its proximity to the cutoff for the Chase for the Championship. But Richmond is the actual cutoff for drivers to become eligible to compete for this year's championship, and it too is a tight and fast race track. Are you expecting a more aggressive race, simply because so much is on the line for a handful of drivers?
"I don't know because I'm really not in a position to where I have to be worried about it. I really don't know what the different scenarios are for different people to actually make the Chase. But different guys will have different agendas that day, so maybe we'll see some aggressive driving and maybe we won't."
Does being locked into the Chase provide you with a sense of relief because there is no cutoff for you to worry about?
"Oh yeah, for sure. It just lets us work on the stuff that we normally work on. We don't have to make something happen, so it definitely takes the pressure off. We'll go out and worry about winning the race versus worrying about getting into the Chase."
You're entering the third race of a three-race span where you begin in the late afternoon daylight and finish under the lights. How do you handle those types of conditions, specifically, when the sun disappears and the race track's surface cools?
"I like night racing anyway. I always have. The good thing about night races is that I get to sleep in through the morning. But the challenge is the same for everybody as far as how the surface temperature of the race track will cool off. That's the good thing about it. It gives us a challenge that we don't normally have on a day when the sun is out and the track normally won't change a lot. So it just adds another variable that makes it more exciting for the fans."
How do you deal with the setting sun and its affect on your vision?
"Sometimes it makes it a little difficult visibility-wise. But we've all run enough of these races where we've started in the daytime and ended in the evening. We put extra tape on the top of our windshield that helps shield the sun for us. But that's probably the only downside. For us as competitors, we realize the advantage that night racing gives us to be able to run in prime time like that. So if a little extra tape has to go on the windshield and we've got to deal with the sun for a couple extra laps, so be it."
What's the key to being successful at Richmond?
"You want to make sure that your car is adjustable. We start the race at the end of the day where it's usually pretty hot, but as night comes the track cools down and it changes quite a bit. Old pavement, new pavement, the same theory applies, and that's not something you see at most of the races we go to. It's pretty much isolated to just the night races. When we tested there a couple of years ago, we actually tried to make the car drive badly so that we could figure out ways to make it drive well again. You've got to have adjustability, because you know for a fact that the track isn't going to stay the same all night long."
Is Richmond similar to any other tracks that you've raced on in your career?
"It just reminded me of some of the shorter tracks that I've run. It had kind of the same feel that three-quarter-mile tracks did with some of the other cars that I've run with. It wasn't a big drastic change. It was like Phoenix the first time I went there. I hadn't been to a 1-mile oval but once in my life, but when I got onto Phoenix, I adjusted and adapted to it really quickly. It was a place where I became very comfortable right away. I had that same feeling when I went to Richmond for the first time with The Home Depot car. I think every driver has a track that they go to where they get that same feeling. There are just some places that you go to where you adjust, and it really suits your driving style."
You're pulling triple duty at Richmond, running the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race Thursday night, the NASCAR Busch Series race Friday night and the Nextel Cup race Saturday night. Will competing in the Truck and Busch Series races help your efforts on Friday and Saturday when you're in the Home Depot Chevrolet?
"I don't think so. The Trucks and Busch cars are quite a bit different from the Cup cars. It just gives me some time on the race track and gives me a chance to get the feel that I want a little quicker than if I just got in the Cup car and started on Friday. The extra track time certainly won't hurt me any."
How competitive is the Truck Series?
"It just keeps getting better and better. The competition gets tougher each year. You don't just go in there and expect to win. You've got to go out there and earn it. When you have Bobby Hamilton, Ted Musgrave, Dennis Setzer and those guys that are running up front each week - Rick Crawford, David Starr - you can't take anything for granted. You have to have everything right to go out and win just like you do in a Busch race or a Cup race."
Early in your Nextel Cup career, you said that adapting to a Cup car was easier than adapting to a Busch Series car because of the extra horsepower that a Nextel Cup car provided. Now that you're competing in the Busch Series more often, has your opinion changed?
"I still think it was easier to get used to the Cup car just because of the horsepower differences. The Busch cars' straightaway speeds are a little slower, so you drive it a lot deeper into the corners than you do with the Cup cars. I still believe it was easier for me to make the transition from Sprint Cars and Midgets to the Cup Series versus going from Sprint Cars and Midgets to the Busch Series. Having the Cup Series experience on my side now, it does make it easier to go to the Busch Series because I know what to expect when I'm there. It was kind of a backward leap for me, because I feel I'm better in a Busch Series car now than when I was when I ran that series fairly regularly."
Your sponsor, The Home Depot, has been very involved with the relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina, donating $1.5 million in aid and sending over 1,000 volunteers to the Gulf Shores region. Talk about that.
"Whenever there's some sort of natural disaster, Home Depot is always there, helping out in any way they can. They do whatever has to be done to get supplies where they need to be, and their associates are always willing to volunteer to go wherever help is needed. There's always been a lot of pride in representing Home Depot on the race track, but it's even more so in times like these."