Stewart Atlanta preview

CHARLOTTE, N.C., (Nov. 14, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the ...

CHARLOTTE, N.C., (Nov. 14, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, knows what it takes to win a championship.

He's seen the remarkable front-running consistency that Bobby Labonte, Stewart's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, has displayed throughout the season to earn the 2000 Winston Cup championship. Stewart has also been in Labonte's shoes, albeit in racing divisions other than Winston Cup.

Stewart's first championship came in 1983 at the age of 12, when he was the International Karting Federation Grand National champion. Another karting championship was won in 1987, when Stewart collected the World Karting Association National championship.

Stewart notched his first USAC championship in 1994 by winning five times in 22 starts in the National Midget category. It was a prelude to even bigger things, as 1995 was the year Stewart made USAC history by winning the Triple Crown. He won the National Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown titles all in the same year, a feat never accomplished by anyone before Stewart, or since.

After earning the Rookie of the Year title in Indy Racing League (IRL) competition in 1996, Stewart won the IRL championship the following year.

A slate of 22 NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division races with Gibbs in 1998 prepared Stewart for his assault on the Winston Cup ranks in 1999. The schooling proved successful, as three wins, two poles, the Rookie of the Year title and a fourth-place standing in the points were the result.

The 2000 season has further highlighted Stewart's championship talent. With a season-high six victories in his sophomore season, a mark that broke the previous record set by Dale Earnhardt in 1980, Stewart comes to the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway as a driver capable of being next year's Winston Cup champion.

!Your teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Bobby Labonte, heads into Atlanta having clinched the Winston Cup championship. How satisfying is his win for you?@

"I'm just excited for him. He's been such a great teammate ever since I joined Joe Gibbs Racing. He deserves to win the championship. I've won a lot of championships in the past and I've known what they've meant to me. To win a Winston Cup championship is really special. I can't think of anybody who deserves it more than Bobby, and I've done anything I can to help him."

!With the two seasons that you've had in Winston Cup, you're going to be considered a strong threat to win the championship next year. How do you feel about that?@

"As a race car driver, it's nice to know that you're with the right team - one that's capable of putting you in championship contention. It's very comforting to know that you're with a team that's not only ready, but has already won its first championship. This team obviously knows how to win championships. It makes you feel good as a driver knowing that you've got everything in place that you need to hopefully go out and be the next Winston Cup champion."

!What does The Home Depot team need to do to win the championship in 2001?@

"We need to have consistency, the same kind of consistency Bobby's had this year. He's had a lot of consistency and no DNFs. That's the thing that we've got to do. We've got four DNFs on our record this year and a lot of races where we struggled that we need to figure out how to keep from struggling next year under the same circumstances. Basically, Bobby's laid out a pretty good blueprint of what it takes to win a Winston Cup championship. We just have to go out and try to execute it next year."

!Did you ever think that your ascension up the Winston Cup ladder would happen this quickly?@

"Not at all. I was going to be happy just being a part of Winston Cup racing. To be able to win nine races in two years so far, and to be able to do what we've done in such a short period of time - I'm very excited about what the future holds for me. I feel like I've hit the lottery with this Home Depot team. Not many people in this garage area have had the opportunity that we've had. We still have to go out and do our job each week, but we've been able to get all the tools that not only allows us to our job, but allows us to do our job well."

!If you're in Labonte's shoes at this point next year, how important will his experiences be in helping you clinch the championship?@

"You know that you've got Bobby. He's only a phone call away or he's right there in the garage area. Knowing that he's there close by and has the experience of going through a championship chase is a big help."

!What if you're racing Labonte for the championship?@

"Then it's every man for himself.  I can't think of a better situation than 
to race him for the championship.  It would be a great thing for our team 
altogether.  We could keep it in the family that way."

!What makes Joe Gibbs Racing a championship organization?@

"I think it's just the people involved. I've seen cases where there's been five resumes with five guys with the same qualifications to do the same job, but Joe and Zippy and Jimmy Makar, they know which guy is right for our program and which guy personality-wise is going to mesh with the guys. That's important. Just having a guy who is qualified to do the job doesn't mean that it'll work out. They're really good at knowing which guy is the right guy to pick as far as keeping all the personalities in sync with each other at the race shop. That's an important piece to the puzzle."

!When you become a championship contender, does your focus change from just winning races to earning as many points as possible whenever possible?@

"I don't think that winning a lot of races has to go with winning a championship. Bobby's won four races this year. If he finished second in each of those four races, he'd have five less points per race. That's 20 less points overall. I mean, he could still win the championship and not win a race. I don't think race wins have much to do with winning a championship when it comes to points. But if you can go out there and win some races, you're putting the pressure on the rest of the field to step up. Those guys will know that you're out to win races. If you're running hard, you're going to force the guys around you to run even harder."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac:

!Does winning the most races this year take the place of winning the championship?@

"Last year we said we had to grow in some areas. This year, we'll look back on the season and say we have to grow in some areas in order to be a championship contender. Our consistency is what has hurt us. We haven't had many boring days it seems like this year. We're always battling back from something. I think that shows the strength of this Home Depot team, which is a very positive thing to have. There are a lot of teams that have bad days and don't battle back, or can't battle back, or give up. If you go back through this year and last year, and look to see how many times we were one or two laps down and wound up finishing in the top-five, it would be impressive. Those are things that are going to make us a championship contender down the road.

"What we have to do is not have any DNFs next year. We had four this year. If you give us every one of those races where we were running in the top-five before we had trouble. If we could have those back, we'd be a threat this year. Our goal is to win as many races as we can and to obviously, finish as high as we can in the points and contend for a championship. Next year maybe we will be. Next year at this time, maybe we'll be sitting here again saying that we still need to mature and grow in certain areas. But as long as we're winning races and we're competitive week-in and week-out, then it's easier to look and grow and be excited about things. We're fortunate enough to have been able to win six races already this year. We probably had chances at five or seven other ones that we weren't able to capitalize on. That's pretty exciting."

<pre> TONY STEWART'S ATLANTA PERFORMANCE PROFILE Year Event Start Finish Status/Laps Earnings 2000 Cracker Barrel 500 27 34 Accident/270 $44,035 1999 Cracker Barrel 500 3 11 Running/325 $35,815 NAPA 500 30 15 Running/324 $55,815 k

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing