TONY STEWART No Need to Clench When You're Clinched ATLANTA (Sept. 5, 2007) -- "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," words made famous on ABC's Wide World of Sports, has been a staple of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series' September visit...
No Need to Clench When You're Clinched
ATLANTA (Sept. 5, 2007) -- "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," words made famous on ABC's Wide World of Sports, has been a staple of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series' September visit to Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, as the 26th event on the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule is the cutoff race for drivers to make the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup.
In year's past, only 10 drivers qualified for the Chase, with a spirited battle among a handful of drivers at Richmond to either stay within the top-10 or break into the top-10. In 2007, 12 drivers are eligible for the Chase, and unless 12th-place Kevin Harvick finishes outside the top-30 at Richmond and 13th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., wins, there is unlikely to be a change among the top-12 drivers vying for this year's championship.
While that might disappoint some, Tony Stewart isn't one of them. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing clinched a spot in this year's Chase via a fourth-place finish two weeks ago at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
It's a reversal of fortune for the two-time Nextel Cup champion, for in last year's September race at Richmond, Stewart fell out of the top-10. Displaced by Kasey Kahne for the final spot in the Chase, Stewart endured the agony of defeat gracefully, exiting his car and answering reporter's questions before leaving the garage area.
A repeat scene for some other driver is unlikely come Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400. The driver lineup for the Chase is all but sealed. The teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing will have to wait until next year.
For Stewart and the other 11 drivers in this year's Chase, it's all about winning and getting the last 10-point bonus before their points are reset to 5,000 after Richmond, with each driver getting an additional 10 points for each of their respective wins during the regular season.
Stewart has 30 bonus points for his three wins at Chicagoland, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen (N.Y.), which currently puts him third behind five-time race winner Jimmie Johnson and four-time race winner Jeff Gordon. Behind Stewart are two drivers with two wins and six drivers with a win apiece, and Stewart would like nothing more than to expand that difference with a win at Richmond, something he's done three times in Cup and twice in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
You're the only driver to have won a championship under the old, season-long Winston Cup format and the current Chase for the Nextel Cup format. Was one title tougher to win than the other?
"It's comparing apples to oranges. It was just two different deals. Back in 2002, we only had to worry about Mark Martin at the end of the season. With the second one in 2005, we had to worry about four or five people until the last night, and it really came down to two guys that we had to worry about. It's a totally different deal when you've got a 10-race season versus a 36-week season."
Is one format a truer test of skills than the other?
"I think the old format tested you and it really put you in perspective with everybody as a driver because you had four restrictor plate races throughout the season and two road course races. Those all contributed to winning or losing a championship. With the format now, there are 10 specific races. There's only one restrictor plate race. There are no road courses. There's a lot of mile-and-a-half tracks. It's kind of a 'it is what it is' situation. It just makes you focus on those last 10 weeks and what you have to do instead. You know the season's going to be decided over 10 weeks versus 36. So, you focus on that now."
Is winning a championship under the old system held in the same esteem as winning a championship under the Chase format?
"I think if you've won a championship, you've earned it, no matter how you won it or under which format it was. I think people respect that. If you're a champion, you're a champion, no matter what format you won it under."
What will it take to win another championship?
"If I knew that we'd win the championship every year. There's no blueprint. Every year if you look back in the history of NASCAR there's never been two years that have been identical. Every year is kind of like a snowflake -- they're all different. You've just got to take the circumstances you're dealt each week and work to consistently finish in the top-five. If you can do that every week you'll put yourself into a position to win the championship."
You've proven to be very versatile, as you've won in every single racing series you've competed in with the exception of sports cars. Do you feel that gives you an advantage with the Car of Tomorrow (CoT), as Richmond, along with six of the final 10 races, are CoT venues?
"In this day and age, the technology is so much more important. It's getting like Indy car and Formula 1 racing. The technology and the engineers in the sport make it harder for the drivers to be the deciding factor. In this day and age, it's a 3,400-pound car and it's either right or it's wrong. If it's not right, it's hard to carry a 3,400-pound race car and make it do what it doesn't want to do. In sprint cars and midgets, because they're lighter, it's easier to throw them around and you can kind of make them do what you want. But in this day and age with NASCAR being as technical as it is and as advanced as it is technology-wise, it's going to be hard for the drivers to make the difference. It's more about the team, and we've got a great team at Joe Gibbs Racing."
With three Nextel Cup wins and two Craftsman Truck Series wins, you've had a lot of success at Richmond. Is it one of your favorite tracks?
"It is my favorite track. It's not one of them, it's the favorite track of mine on the circuit. I've won two Truck races and three Cup races there. It's where I got my first win. A good friend of mine, Kasey Kahne, got his first win there. Being able to see Kasey win his first race there was cool, too. It's definitely a place I enjoy coming to, and considering how it factors into the Chase, it's definitely an important stop for us."
Richmond is one of many races that begins in the late afternoon daylight and finishes 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 reminds me of some of the shorter tracks that I've run. It has kind of the same feel that three-quarter-mile tracks did with some of the other cars that I've run with. 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."