Tony Stewart Season starts anew at Richmond. ATLANTA (May 1, 2002) - So what if Tony Stewart has three DNFs (Did Not Finish) in the 10 races run thus far in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. So what if two straight 29th place finishes have dropped...
Season starts anew at Richmond.
ATLANTA (May 1, 2002) - So what if Tony Stewart has three DNFs (Did Not Finish) in the 10 races run thus far in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. So what if two straight 29th place finishes have dropped him from fifth to 10th in the championship point standings entering the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. Stewart and his Home Depot Racing Team are still championship contenders.
Stewart has put his #20 Home Depot Pontiac at the front of the field for a total of 467 laps - the most of any driver this year, which translates to 485.68 miles. It's a telling number, for unlike his three previous Winston Cup seasons, Stewart has come out of the gate strong, running in the top-five week-in and week-out. A win at Atlanta in March augmented by top-five finishes at Rockingham (N.C.), Las Vegas, Texas and Martinsville (Va.) have made Stewart's orange and black Pontiac a familiar sight at the front of the field.
And despite the roller-coaster start to the 2002, Stewart's 10th place point standing is a fine place to be as the Winston Cup Series rolls into the second third of the season.
The spring Richmond race is where Stewart's season really seems to take shape. With the exception of his win this year at Atlanta, his 12 other career wins have come in the last seven months of the season. In fact, seven of his wins have come in the last three months of the season. And it is Richmond that seems to be the catalyst for Stewart's late season surge, a point proven by his 6.33 average finish in his six previous Richmond starts - the best of any driver with more than five starts at the track's current layout.
As the defending winner of the Pontiac Excitement 400, Stewart comes to the .750-mile oval ready to duplicate last year's trip to victory lane. If Stewart succeeds, it will be his third career Winston Cup win at Richmond, as his maiden Winston Cup victory came during his rookie year in the fall of 1999. Consider career win number 14 and the points that come with it set in Stewart's sights.
Despite the roller-coaster season thus far, is the championship still within reach?
"I think so. Everywhere we've been this year we've run strong, and typically our season tends to get off to a slow start through the first eight or nine races. But we really start coming into our own right when we get to Richmond. I realistically think we still have a shot at winning this championship. Yeah, we're 301 points out, but there's been times already this year where we've been 250 points back and we've come back to within 140 points. There's still a lot of racing left. Now, we definitely need to make the most of what's left, but by no means do I think we're out of it."
You tested at Richmond April 22-23. How did the test go and what did you learn?
"It had been a couple of years since we'd tested at Richmond. We've always run well there, but the reason we came back to test was so that we could try and keep the advantage that we've seemed to have on teams in the past. We were really, really happy when we left there. The Home Depot Pontiac tested very well. We spent two days working on setups, and we had our teammate there, Bobby Labonte, and we traded some notes with him. Jerry Nadeau, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott and Steve Grissom were there as well, so we were around some pretty good cars and we were still able to run some really good times that we were very happy with. It was a little cool when we tested, somewhere in the mid to high 50s, so we're hoping that the weather kind of stays the same for us this weekend. But you never know until you get there."
As the defending winner, what's the key to winning 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. 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 here, 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."
What do you like best about night racing?
"I like night races because I can sleep into 11 o'clock in the morning. That's probably my number one reason. I'm nocturnal, basically. I mean, the best hours of the day for me are when the sun goes down. I'm a lot sharper and a lot wider awake at night."
Do the track conditions at Richmond change much between the time when you race there in the fall and when you return in the spring?
"Of all the tracks that we go to, Richmond is one where the track changes quite a bit. To me, it's like going back to dirt track days, where you look at the race track and you look at the conditions and you adjust accordingly. The approach you used at the fall race at Richmond may not be the same way you go about setting up the car for the spring race, especially this year with the new sealer they've put down. But overall, the approach you do use still is geared toward making the car rotate through the center of the corner and going forward when you get on the gas without spinning the tires. Those principles stay the same. But how you drive the track from a driver's standpoint is a little different, and that's what's fun about it. It's still a challenge for the crews, but it's a challenge for the drivers to figure out where they want to be on the race track."
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 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 one-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."
Because you've won there, do you have higher expectations going into Richmond, or do you treat it as just another points-paying race?
"I think that with the way our season is going, we have to look at it like it's just another race. But it's going to be hard to not have in the back of our mind that because we've won there twice we should expect to run well. I'm not sure we'd go in there and expect to win again. I think we've got a shot to win, but to go there and expect it - we don't do that. But we do expect to run well and hopefully contend for the win."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac:
What is your approach going into the Pontiac Excitement 400?
"We'll go there with really high expectations. We tested there last Monday and Tuesday, and we were really good. That race will be all about track position, so the guys in the pits are going to play a big role, just as much as what we're able to do on the race track.
"Over the course of our three years of going there, we've been good enough to win all but one time. With that kind of momentum, we can't help but to expect a lot. But we'll just go there and do the best we can and try to win there.
"That's what we do every week. I don't think there is any one place that we look at as a better opportunity over another. I feel like we can pretty much unload anywhere and win right now. With the level that Tony is performing at, with the intensity level of this team, and with the 100 people that are preparing our stuff and supporting the effort back at home, it gives us a chance to be a contender every week."