Richmond: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART You Read it Here First ATLANTA (May 2, 2007) -- Just as New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed a victory over the favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team is guaranteeing that...

TONY STEWART
You Read it Here First

ATLANTA (May 2, 2007) -- Just as New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed a victory over the favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team is guaranteeing that a Stewart will be in victory lane following Saturday night's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.

They just hope it's their Stewart.

Their Stewart is Tony Stewart, two-time Nextel Cup champion and driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing. And they want to see him lift the race-winning trophy after 400 laps around Richmond's three-quarter mile oval alongside Jim Stewart, for whom the race is named after. That's right, Saturday night's race is the Jim Stewart 400.

Jim Stewart earned his name in lights, literally, by writing the winning essay in a contest sponsored by Crown Royal. And while Jim Stewart earned his way to victory lane by way of his deft touch on a keyboard, Tony Stewart aims to get there by his deft touch of the throttle behind the wheel of his 3,400-pound, 850-horsepower Chevrolet Impala SS.

Stewart the race car driver has a checkered history at Richmond, having won three Nextel Cup races and two NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series events. He's also raced a NASCAR Busch Series car at Richmond, along with a USAC Midget and a Silver Crown entry.

In Cup alone, Stewart has five top-fives and 10 top-10s in 16 career starts. He has led a total of 764 laps -- 11.2 percent of the 6,793 laps available to him. The majority of those laps came in Stewart's first career Nextel Cup win, when in September 1999 Stewart led 333 of the 400 laps available (83.2 percent).

But this year's trip to Richmond brings a new wrinkle to Stewart and his Joe Gibbs Racing Team. Gone is their familiar Chevrolet Monte Carlo, replaced with the Car of Tomorrow (CoT) Chevrolet Impala SS.

Saturday night's race at Richmond will mark just the fourth race for the CoT, as it's slowly being incorporated into the fleets of Nextel Cup teams via a 16-race schedule this year and a 26-race schedule in 2008 before going full-time with all 36 races in 2009.

Despite Hendrick Motorsports' sweep of the three previous COT races -- Kyle Busch at Bristol (Tenn.), Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville (Va.) and Jeff Gordon at Phoenix -- it's Joe Gibbs Racing that's been the dominant team when it comes to the CoT.

With one less team than Hendrick, the three-car Joe Gibbs Racing outfit has led 781 of the 1,316 laps available in the three CoT races held this year (59.3 percent). Stewart has been responsible for 400 of those laps (51.2 percent). Unfortunately, neither he nor his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates -- Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley -- have anything to show for their efforts, as bad breaks and bad luck have so far kept them out of victory lane.

But considering Stewart's history at Richmond and his strong performances in previous CoT races, Saturday night's Jim Stewart 400 may well see Tony Stewart back in victory lane for the first time this season and for the 30th time in Nextel Cup.

You've run well at the CoT races, but you don't have the results to show for your efforts. Does that get you and the team down, or does it make you and team more determined to get that next win?

"We don't settle for anything less than winning races. When we know that we let one slip away, that's something that we do let ourselves get down about, but that's also what got us 29 wins and two championships. We have such a high standard of what we feel our performance should be on the race track. I think that shows the caliber team that we have."

Despite no wins, you're still having a good year as you're sixth in points. Do you feel the team is where it needs to be?

"I think our team is fine. If you look at the CoT races, I think we've faired very well. Obviously, Martinsville for the 20 car wasn't that great, but the 11 car (Hamlin) has run good everywhere we've been. He's been the fastest car at two of the three tracks a lot of times so far. I feel like everywhere we've been we've had opportunities to win. I've either made mistakes or just circumstances have kept us from being there to close it out. If you think about it, if we would have hit half of the ones that we should have won, that would have been a start to the season we've never ever seen in eight years. It seems like once we get that first one, then we get hot and get a pretty good string of runs right there in a row. It's a matter of time. It's going to happen. It's just a matter of what weekend it's going to be."

Does coming so close and not winning put additional stress on the team, or does it give the team more incentive to win because they know they're right on the cusp of getting that first win?

"That's just how competitive we are. Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) and I have been through the thick and the thin together, but that's why we're a perfect driver/crew chief combination. We understand each other well. We have the same passion, the same desire, the same frustrations. We're on the same playing field, side by side, on the way we think and feel about things. Not winning might add a little bit of stress, but if you look at Zippy's past before he came to NASCAR, he was pretty successful. I had good fortune before I came here. I think we've both had good fortune since we've been here. It's personalities. We're not two guys that are going to sit back and be happy with second or third. If that's detrimental, then that's what it has to be. That's just who we are. We can't change that."

You and your crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, continue to have the longest-tenured driver/crew chief relationship in Nextel Cup. In fact, your first win together came at Richmond during your rookie year in the fall of 1999. What makes your pairing so good?

"The thing that makes him such a great crew chief is that he's so dedicated to the program. He lives, eats, breathes and sleeps this race team. He's a great person. I hit the lottery getting him as a crew chief. He's the reason we've been so successful together as a team. We both have the same passion and desire to win. His work ethic is unbelievable. He cares about people. He learned a lot from Joe Gibbs in that you're only as good as your weakest person. We're always striving to make ourselves better than what we are, but at the same time, he treats everybody as an individual. I could sit here for hours and talk about him. He's just a great person. He's one of those people that when times get tough, he's in the shop 14, 16 hours a day until we get out of the rut that we're in. That's how dedicated he is to our program. And when you put two guys together like Greg and myself that have the same desire to win and the same passion to win, it's hard to beat a combination like that."

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."

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."

-credit: tsr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne , J.J. Yeley , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch
Teams Hendrick Motorsports , Joe Gibbs Racing