Tony Stewart Ready to Rebound at The Rock ATLANTA (Feb. 19, 2002) - Even before heading to Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and winning the Budweiser Shootout for the second straight year, finishing second in his Gatorade Twin 125 race, and...
Ready to Rebound at The Rock
ATLANTA (Feb. 19, 2002) - Even before heading to Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and winning the Budweiser Shootout for the second straight year, finishing second in his Gatorade Twin 125 race, and winning the IROC race, Tony Stewart was a favorite to win this year's Daytona 500.
But when engine problems ended Stewart's Daytona 500 after just two laps, the disappointment ran deep. Not just because fans and the media believed Stewart could win, but because Stewart believed he could win, as he was the most comfortable and relaxed he had ever been going into a restrictor plate race.
With such a strong and lengthy buildup to the Daytona 500, the lap two letdown had many believing that Stewart would be irate. It was not the case. Instead, a calm and collected Stewart explained what happened to live TV and radio, thanked his crew members for the hard work they had put into The Home Depot Pontiac during the past 11 days, and walked to the motorcoach lot.
With roughly 40 laps left in the Daytona 500, Stewart got in his car and headed not toward the airport, but north on Interstate 95. Thinking of what could've been at Daytona, and planning for Sunday's race at Rockingham (N.C.), would best be accomplished on an eight-hour drive.
Obviously, the Daytona 500 was a disappointment for you and The Home Depot Racing Team. But did the adversity you suffered at Daytona make you more determined to go after the championship this year?
"In a small way it takes a little bit of the pressure off of us because we're already in a (point) deficit. But at the same time, it still falls under the category of trying to get a good start in the first eight races. To a certain degree, it makes it even more important for us to pick it up in the next seven or eight races. We need to get back in the hunt as quickly as possible to give ourselves the opportunity to win the championship at the end of the year."
A lot of people were expecting a different reaction from you when you climbed from your car in the garage area at Daytona. Was it a case of something being so far out of your control that you saw no use in getting mad?
"There wasn't anything I was going to be able to do to make it better. I was upset about it, as was everyone else. I think anyone would be. But I think it showed people how I've tried to mature over the winter, and how I've learned to deal with things that are disappointments in a constructive manner that's going to help us stay focused and keep the team pumped up. Even though it was a disappointment for all of us, once the guys saw how I was handling things, it made it a little easier on them too. It helped the whole team."
Instead of flying back to Concord, N.C., you chose to drive. Why was that?
"Driving back home was old school, for the most part. It was a way for me to relax. I wasn't mad. I wasn't having tantrums. To be honest, I just felt like being by myself and driving home while I listened to the radio. The ironic part of the whole deal is that I found out yesterday that Greg (Zipadelli, crew chief) did the same thing. I think that's what makes us such a good team, because we think a lot alike."
A lot of other drivers who are considered championship contenders had problems at Daytona as well. Did that take some of the sting out of your result?
"I don't know, to be honest. The way I look at it is that we still finished 43rd. No matter who finished first, second, third, 12th, whatever - we're still at a deficit. I don't care who the leader is or who the contenders are. In this series, a team that really improved itself over the winter and wasn't considered a championship contender, could all of a sudden become a contender. We still have to race the guys that are at the top of the point standings."
During your entire time spent at Speedweeks, you seemed laid back but at the same time very focused. Do you think your collective results - winning the Budweiser Shootout, finishing second in your Gatorade Twin 125 race and winning the IROC race - were a result of your attitude?
"In a small part our results were a part of that. But the bigger part was that everyone on the race team worked so hard over the winter to bring competitive race cars to Daytona. We definitely had that. Every car that we took to Daytona was fast. It just showed how dedicated everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing is to making sure that we have the opportunity to run for a championship this year."
Because of what you endured at Daytona, do you have a heightened amount of confidence going into Rockingham?
"I have some confidence, more so than any other time I've gone to Rockingham. Even though it's a totally different race track and a totally different engine package, it's back to a normal, weekly routine. With our performance there, and the way that we've worked there, I feel like we're going to have a really good year, just from how we work at Rockingham.
"It's a track where you don't really worry about what everybody else's car is doing, you worry about what your car is doing. You're racing the race track. You're not racing everybody else. It's a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things. Once you leave Rockingham, you feel like the season has officially started. It's a good place to go racing."
Explain a lap around Rockingham.
"The two ends of the track are pretty different from one another. They look, geometrically, about the same. The entry into (turn) one is a little bit wide, and it gets tight off of (turn) two. But it's just the opposite in (turns) three and four. Once you get into three you can pretty much get in the gas pretty hard, especially if you're on fresh tires. Then you can run through four really hard. Compare that to (turns) one and two, where you can run in there a little harder, but it's a little trickier coming off of two. It's definitely got its own unique set of challenges, but that's what makes Rockingham a fun race track."
What does it take to get around Rockingham quickly?
"Making sure the car has a really good balance to where you're not having to use the tires up by leaning on them hard to go fast. If you can get the car driving well enough that you can run a good pace without pushing the car, then normally halfway through a run you're really good and you're really starting to pull away from guys whose cars aren't quite as balanced as yours. They're having to use up their tires a little more than you."
What do you do if your car isn't balanced?
"You just make sure you don't lean on them (tires) any more than you have to. If you have to run hard to keep the pace, then you have to run hard. But you just try to be as easy on them as you can, maybe be smoother on the race track by finding a line that's a little less abrasive by changing the balance of the car. There are some spots on the track that'll make your car freer and some that'll make it tighter. Depending on what your car's balance is doing, you need to move around on the race track to help it out."