DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 16, 2001) - It was only a year ago at Daytona International Speedway where Tony Stewart would climb from his Home Depot Pontiac and shake his head in disgust, questioning whether he would ever learn how to race on a...
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Feb. 16, 2001) - It was only a year ago at Daytona International Speedway where Tony Stewart would climb from his Home Depot Pontiac and shake his head in disgust, questioning whether he would ever learn how to race on a restrictor plate track.
What a difference a year makes.
Stewart showed steady improvement in the three subsequent restrictor plate races following the 2000 Daytona 500. Throughout the year, Stewart earned respect amongst his peers in the draft, thanks to an ever-increasing level of patience along with his 200 mph racing etiquette.
In the first race of the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season, Stewart's superspeedway education culminated with a win in the Budweiser Shootout, a specialty non-points event that unofficially kicks off the racing season. In that race, the third-year Winston Cup driver led 36 laps and held off the dean of the draft - Dale Earnhardt - to take his first superspeedway win.
While the victory came in a 70-lap dash for cash instead of a 500-mile point-paying race, the win was almost as important for Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team. It boosted the team's confidence and carried them though the disappointment of their lap 37 Gatorade 125 accident.
As far as restrictor plate racing goes, how much of a boost was your win in the Shootout?
"It was a big boost. I felt like the restrictor plate races were the ones where I needed the most work. Being able to go out there and win a race doesn't show that you have everything you need to know, but it shows that you at least know enough to get the job done for that day."
Were there some different techniques that you employed during the Shootout that you hadn't used before?
"I think every time we go to a restrictor plate track I learn something new. And I kind of learned some things in IROC practice the other day that helped, too. I think I'm just learning more with each restrictor plate race that I run, regardless of whether it's for points or not."
By beating Dale Earnhardt, the best in the business when it comes to restrictor plate racing, do you feel that you earned even more respect from you competitors?
"I hope so. That's probably the one thing that all drivers want. Not only do we want to win, but we want the respect of the people we race. I felt like I ran a safe race to where I wasn't putting anyone in danger. I ran a competitive race, which is what you're always hoping for. When you can beat Dale at his own game, then that gives you the respect that you're looking for."
You've always been able to finish your season strong. How does it feel to start your season strong?
"I wish the Shootout was a points race. But at the same time, it was still a really, really good boost to us. So, it makes us feel like we're stepping in the right direction right off the bat."
There are still some more practice sessions before the Daytona 500. With that in mind, will you go into a conservation mode in the last couple of days to ensure that what happened in the Gatorade 125 won't happen again?
"We still have to go out and do the work to make sure that we get everything done that we need to get done. Obviously, we didn't need what happened in our Gatorade 125 race. Thankfully, we really didn't hit anything. There was some minor damage to the nose and left fender, but that was about it. It's nothing we can't fix. It seems like every time we come down here for Speedweeks we have to get the Bondo out at some point in time. We had been pretty good up until today. But the guys are going to work hard to get the car back to where it was, and once that's done, I'm going to work hard to keep it like that."
You've mentioned how this is the most comfortable you've ever been during Daytona Speedweeks. Why is that?
"I don't really know. I think some of it transferred from the off-season. My off-season was really relaxed for some strange reason. I felt relaxed in the Shootout. I didn't feel tense. I wasn't even that bent out of shape after the 125. We just had a lot of good things happen over the winter that made me more relaxed and enabled me to focus on the job at hand - driving The Home Depot Pontiac."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac:
After all the time you spend in the wind tunnel preparing for the Daytona 500, how does an accident like the one you experienced in the Gatorade 125 affect your game plan?
"We made some templates of the nose of the car before we came down here, so we'll just do the best we can of putting it back together. A couple of guys from the fabrication shop that actually worked on that car at the shop are here to work on it. I think we'll be all right. It's just some sheet metal work on the fender. It's not bad - just some Bondo-ing and painting that needs to be done. It's more a pain in the neck than anything else. It may not be as good as it was, but it'll be pretty close. We do work hard in the wind tunnel, but it's more for qualifying than it is for racing. We'll just do our best to get it back in shape and work on it some more during practice."
Was your performance in the Budweiser Shootout and your initial run in the Gatorade 125 qualifying race a sign of things to come for the Daytona 500?
"I think so. It was a big step for this Home Depot Racing Team. We've qualified well at restrictor plate tracks and we've raced okay, but today was a big step because the car we had in the Shootout was probably the best balanced car we had, and I think Tony did his best job behind the wheel. Every time we go out on the race track he learns something. Before the Shootout we talked about learning all we could and putting it all together, and it showed in the Shootout. The guys did a good job on their pit stop. It was only one stop, but it was a good one. Even though the 125 didn't turn out too well, we ran well until we had our problem. I'm proud of Tony and I'm proud of the guys for handling the highs and lows of this week so well. But come Sunday, we're hoping we can carry everything we did in the Shootout into the 500."
How important was it for the team to get a win at a restrictor plate track?
"I think it's big, because if you go back and look at our record, we've run well and we've led a bunch of laps, but we've never been able to close the deal at a restrictor plate track like we have with our flat track and short track programs. Those are pretty solid, and we'll continue to work on those so that we don't give up anything there. Charlotte in the fall - we ran really, really well and that was a big step for us. At Atlanta we ran well all weekend, but had some problems right there at the end, but we still left there feeling like we had taken some steps that would make us better for this year. For us to come to Daytona and qualify as well as we did time-wise, win the Shootout, and then run well in the beginning of our Twin 125 - it's just another stepping stone. We're still jogging. We want to run. But sometimes when you start running too soon, you trip and fall. We don't want to do that."
Coming into this season, we've seen a more relaxed Tony Stewart. How helpful has that been to the team on and off the race track?
"It's the most relaxed that I've seen him in the three years that I've known him, and I think that'll carry over through the season. He's building his confidence. He's built himself a little place here in Winston Cup and that takes some time. He's done a really good job of adjusting to everything that this sport encompasses. It started late last year and it has carried over to this year. It's the most excited I've seen him about going racing. In testing, he's come and given me all the time we've needed at the two tests we've had so far this year. It was always like, 'What do you need? What can I give you?' and we would just go out and do it. That's really important because it keep everyone's spirits up and we get the opportunity to learn more."
<pre> TONY STEWART'S DAYTONA PERFORMANCE PROFILE
Year Event Start Finish Status/Laps Laps Led Earnings 2000 Daytona 500 7 17 Running/200 0 $116,875 Pepsi 400 7 6 Running/160 1 $71,425 1999 Daytona 500 2 20 Running/181 0 $102,204 Pepsi 400 6 6 Running/160 0 $52,475