TONY STEWART GAME ON ATLANTA (Feb. 7, 2007) -- Two championships. Twenty-nine wins. Ten poles. One hundred and nine top-five finishes. One hundred and sixty-eight top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Home...
ATLANTA (Feb. 7, 2007) -- Two championships. Twenty-nine wins. Ten poles. One hundred and nine top-five finishes. One hundred and sixty-eight top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team have accumulated in their eight years together in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.
But despite the impressive figures, the most pressing matter of the moment is readying for the 2007 Nextel Cup season. The wins, the poles and the accolades of year's past don't mean much when another grueling, 36-race schedule looms ahead. For all intents and purposes, it's just another series of never-ending performance reviews.
As such, the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing squad completed two test sessions in January -- one at Daytona (Fla.) and another at Las Vegas -- prior to the annual February pilgrimage to Daytona for Speedweeks and the ensuing grind that will consume all teams right through the end of November.
One year removed from their status as reigning series champions, the No. 20 team enters 2007 with their eyes fixed on earning career win No. 30 and then some while securing their third series championship and the fourth for Joe Gibbs Racing.
While plenty of questions surround the upcoming season, there are no questions regarding the on-track success of the No. 20 team. And thanks to an off-season filled with testing and new car construction, The Home Depot Racing Team aims to keep it that way.
Whenever a new season begins, do you set goals?
"When I was racing Midget and Sprint cars and paying my own bills, you learned to try to win each race. If you did that, everything else seemed to take care of itself. Your goal is to stay consistent all year. That's our goal."
What will it take to win another championship?
"If I knew that we'd win the championship every year. There's no blueprint. Every year if you look back in the history of NASCAR there's never been two years that have been identical. Every year is kind of like a snowflake -- they're all different. You've just got to take the circumstances you're dealt each week and work to consistently finish in the top-five. If you can do that every week, you'll put yourself into a position to win the championship."
After you won your first championship, what was the biggest hurdle you faced in trying to win your second championship?
"We didn't really look at it that way. Our approach is to strictly take it one week at a time, so there wasn't a particular hurdle. It was just a matter of going out each week and trying to duplicate what we had done before.
"This is a series that's always in a constant stage of change. The technology advances. If you look what happened to Indy car racing and Formula 1 as far as technology and resources go, this sport is following in their footsteps and taking the sport to a whole new level. It used to be the way you ended the season, you could start basically with the same package the next year and have the same kind of success. Now, things change so rapidly that even over the course of a winter, things aren't necessarily where they ended up."
How did winning a championship change your life, and what advice would you give the reigning champion, Jimmie Johnson?
"It just made my life more complicated in all reality. I didn't get all of the big endorsement deals that everybody thinks comes along with it. It was just more media obligations. He'll do just fine. He's a talented guy. He's got a great personality. So, he'll do just fine with it."
Despite not making the Chase last year, do you think you have as much momentum as anyone coming into this season?
"Yeah, but everything is different this year. We won the championship in 2005 and you'd think we'd have that momentum going into last year, but it didn't work out that way. There are a lot of different variables, especially with the Car of Tomorrow running 16 races. There are just a lot of huge unknown variables that are going to happen this year."
Could the Car of Tomorrow be the "X" factor for who wins the championship this year?
"Absolutely. I think whoever can stumble on the combination and figure out the Car of Tomorrow first is probably the team that's the leading candidate to win the championship this year."
You've been on the record in that you're not a fan of the Car of Tomorrow. Will that affect your performance when you have to race the Car of Tomorrow in 16 races this year, beginning with the March race at Bristol (Tenn.)?
"I've raced for 27 years and I've won championships in cars I didn't like, so I'm not too worried about having to try to trick myself into embracing something that I'm not very fond of so far. If we hit the combination, we can go out there a win a championship with it. If we hit the combination right, we could win 16 races with a new car like that. I don't think it's anything that's psychological. I'm looking forward to seeing what it's going to be all about. I think when we go to Bristol that it'll be interesting to see where everybody stacks up and see who's really done their homework so far this year."
Why aren't you a fan of the Car of Tomorrow?
"It's hard enough just to run one type of car, and it's going to be extremely hard to have to shift your focus between two different brands of cars this year just trying to figure out the new car. It's not like we have the whole year just to dedicate to that car. This is an engineer's dream and a crew chief and driver's nightmare. It'll be interesting to see what happens."
You've proven to be very versatile, as you've won in every single racing series you've competed in with the exception of sports cars. Do you feel that gives you an advantage with the Car of Tomorrow?
"In this day and age, the technology is so much more important. It's getting like Indy car and Formula 1 racing. The technology and the engineers in the sport make it harder for the drivers to be the deciding factor. In this day and age, it's a 3,400-pound car and it's either right or it's wrong. If it's not right, it's hard to carry a 3,400-pound race car and make it do what it doesn't want to do. In Sprint cars and Midgets, because they're lighter, it's easier to throw them around and you can kind of make them do what you want. But in this day and age with NASCAR being as technical as it is and as advanced as it is technology-wise, it's going to be hard for the drivers to make the difference."
After not making the Chase last year, is your team even more focused than they've been in past seasons?
"Yes. I see that focus. I've been at the shop working out with the guys and you can see the dedication in their eyes and see it when they're working on the floor. We're not doing anything any differently than what we've always done, but you can see the passion in their eyes. It's passion and desire. The skills and talents those people have will never change. The thing that makes the difference at this level seems to be the desire and the passion they have to be committed to winning races, and that's what my guys have done."
NASCAR changed the points format this year, allowing 12 drivers into the Chase and giving more points for a win. What's your opinion on the changes?
"It doesn't really matter. It is what it is. The good thing about it is that we all know what it is. We all know what it takes to get in the Chase. We all know how to try to give ourselves an advantage once the Chase starts with the extra bonus points, so now we'll take that system and do the best we can with it to try to give ourselves the best opportunity to win the championship."
How pleased are you that your car ran so well during Daytona testing?
"I'm excited about that, obviously. You know it doesn't matter how fast it runs by itself, it's how fast it runs when it's in a pack of cars. Look at how many races that Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., and I have run first and second when we didn't even qualify in the top-20. I'm not sure that those testing speeds are a huge deal right now. We'll see what we've got when we all go back for the race. Every team holds something back when they go to the test to not show their hand. It's nice to have been up toward the top of the testing speeds, but it'll be a lot more impressive if we can stand there on the stage after winning the 500 in about two weeks."
With all that goes on during Daytona Speedweeks, is it easy to lose track of what you need to do for the rest of the season?
"I think everybody is realistic about it and has done this long enough to know that Daytona is a long, grueling week-and-a-half period. But aside from that you do your work there just like we do every week. If we were told to be at each race five days a week, we'd work hard for five days a week. You just work hard for the whole duration that you're down there, and hope that you get a good result out of it on Sunday. Then you go on to the other 25 races and get ready for the Chase."
You ran well in the final races of 2006, winning three of the year's last 10 events. Can that success transfer to the start of 2007?
"Yeah, but it's still a different year and we still have 16 races with a whole new variable in the Car of Tomorrow. We've got to wait and see. Every year is a different year. Just because you end the year strong doesn't mean you'll start the next year strong. The technology moves so fast in this sport. It used to be what you had on your plate that helped you one year would carry over to the next. Now, things move so fast that I'm not sure it really pertains that much anymore. The whole moral of the story is that as soon as the year stops, you can't stop. You've got to keep working on what's going on for next year and keep pushing your program to try to make it better. Everybody knows that. There are no guarantees at the end of the year that the way you ended up is the way you're going to start the next season."
How was your off-season?
"Very busy. Between re-organizing my USAC team -- we switched from Mopar to Chevrolet and then went and won the Chili Bowl -- and building a 27,000 square-foot shop in Brownsburg, Ind., to hold both the World of Outlaw team and the USAC teams, along with changing the leadership of the team, there wasn't much 'off' to my off-season. We hired Jay Drake to run the USAC operation. We've been very, very busy between that and the three race tracks we're involved with now."
(Stewart owns Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, outright, and co-owns Paducah (Ky.) Speedway with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ken Schrader and Bob Sergeant, and Macon (Ill.) Speedway with Kenny Wallace, Schrader and Sergeant. -- Ed.)
You were two-for-two in Midget racing during the off-season, winning the Rumble in Fort Wayne (Ind.) and the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla. Can that success transfer over to Nextel Cup and give you added confidence for this season?
"Emotionally, yes for sure. Now whether it means it's guaranteeing us a Daytona 500 victory, I know I can't guarantee that. It was fun. It was a fun off-season. I've been very busy with our open-wheel teams and restructuring our USAC operation and building a new facility in Brownsburg, but to be able to win both nights in Fort Wayne and to go win the Chili Bowl with Chevrolet as our sponsor on the USAC side, it was a great coming out party for Chevy. Winning the biggest Midget race of the year, and for me personally to go win a race against 281 other cars with a record number of entries against some of the best open-wheel drivers in the country, was a huge accomplishment for us."
With everything on your plate, is it tough to find time for everything, let alone yourself?
"If I had to do it all by myself, yes, it'd be almost impossible to do all of what we're doing. But we've got really good people in my organization. That's a trait that I learned from Joe and J.D. (Gibbs). You hire the right people to do the right jobs so that they're taking care of the everyday aspects of the business so you have the flexibility to go do the things you need to do. I can concentrate on driving the Cup car or whatever it is for the day. I think I've learned how to take the time that I have allotted to me during a day and be able to shift gears and shift focus 180 degrees and not miss a beat. I think that's been a big part of being successful."
You've been on a regular workout and nutrition regimen for well over six months. Have you noticed the difference behind the wheel of a race car?
"Yeah, I noticed it more before I started working out of how out of shape I was driving Sprint cars and Midgets and Late Models than I was being tired inside a Cup car. It wasn't so much on the Cup side, because the cars are more momentum cars, heavier cars, and you're a lot smoother with them. But when you're dealing with dirt track cars and running the cushion, you're sawing on the wheel quite a bit, so I did notice that a lot this winter. The workout program has been unbelievable. It's been the best thing that I've done the last couple of years. It's definitely been paying off. It's been a lot of work leading up to Daytona and it's something that we're going to continue all year."
What do you think Juan Pablo Montoya has in store for him this year as he makes the transition from Formula 1 to NASCAR?
"Well, there's probably not going to be the world class models hanging around the pits that he's used to. And there's probably going to be a ton more people in the pits than he's used to, but I think he'll have fun. He's a world class driver. Obviously, he was successful in the Indy car series before he went to Formula 1. He'll do well here. The little bit that I got to run around him at Homestead (Fla.) last year, you could tell he has natural driving ability. It doesn't matter what kind of car you put him in. You could put him in a Winged Sprint car and he'll figure it out. It's not a matter of if he's going to be successful, it's how successful he's going to be and when."
Have you resigned yourself to the fact that getting back to Indianapolis to run the Indianapolis 500 is something that may not happen because of scheduling and the demands on your time?
"Absolutely. To be able to do the 500 and do it in the way that I feel would give me an opportunity and the right chance at winning the race, I would have to be away from the Cup series. I'd have to start the season with a team that I would be running with at Indy. I'd have to run the races leading up to the Indy 500 to feel like I had a legitimate shot at winning the race. The competition is getting stiffer and stiffer there, and you can't just go in like I used to be able to do five or six years ago and just climb in a car and be competitive right off the bat. There are so many guys that just want to go to Indy and just make the race, and that's not my priority. If I go there and get in an Indy car again, I'm going for the sole reason of trying to win the race. Second doesn't mean anything to me. A top-five doesn't mean anything to me. The only thing that's going to mean anything is winning the Borg-Warner trophy. If I ever go there again, I'm going with my guns loaded knowing that I have the best shot, as much as anybody else, to win the race. Right now, that opportunity really doesn't exist. It doesn't mean that it won't down the road, but for me to do that, I'd have to leave my NASCAR career behind, and that's not something I'm ready to do right now."