CHARLOTTE, N.C., (Nov. 6, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the ...
CHARLOTTE, N.C., (Nov. 6, 2000) - Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, returns to the race track that put his fantastic rookie season solidly into the record books - Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Last year, Stewart came to Homestead tied with the late Davey Allison for the most wins during a rookie season. Allison scored two wins as a rookie in 1987. Stewart notched his two wins in 1999 at Richmond (Va.) in the fall and at Phoenix seven races later, the event that preceded Homestead. No rookie in NASCAR's modern era had ever won more than three races, and until Stewart joined the circuit, no rookie had won a race since Allison visited victory lane in 1987.
Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team were ready to make their mark in the Winston Cup record book at Homestead. They qualified seventh, led 46 laps in the race, survived a late race bump with teammate Bobby Labonte while vying for the lead, and ended the day with their third victory of the season. Their win was overshadowed by Dale Jarrett clinching his first series championship, but their place in Winston Cup history was not.
You won the inaugural race at Homestead in your rookie year. It was your third win that season, a rookie record. What was that like?
"It's always special when you can win an inaugural race anywhere. To win at Homestead made me feel proud. I had run there in a Busch car a couple of times, and some of the Cup guys had run some Busch races at Homestead too. But for the most part, everyone was a rookie. Nobody had any more experience than the next guy. We were all on a level playing field. When it was all said and done, we came out on top. It was proud day for The Home Depot team because it gave us a tremendous sense of accomplishment."
How bad do you want to repeat at Homestead?
"Well, you love to repeat as a race winner, especially at a place as new as Homestead is to the series. If you can go there and win the first two races where the Winston Cup cars have gone, that's pretty big. After Phoenix, it's a race I've really been looking forward to."
Explain a lap around Homestead.
"The biggest thing is that it's hard to make the car turn there. Then if you get the car turning well, you need to make sure it gets up off the corner. Those seem to be the two biggest challenges. If you can get the car to come off the corner well, then normally you're a little bit tight in the center. But if you can get it to turn well through the corner, then normally it's a little loose off. Trying to make the car turn and go forward at the same time is tough because the corners are so big there."
Is there another track on the Winston Cup circuit that Homestead compares to?
"I would say it's somewhat similar to Indianapolis, but the corners at Homestead seem like they're twice as long. You're in the corner a long time at Homestead and you're on the straightaways a long time. It's a pretty big race track. Having the corners as flat as they are and as long as they are makes for a big challenge in getting your car to drive well there."
You'll be participating in a KaBOOM! playground build in the Little Haiti section of Miami on Thursday. Talk about that.
"It's nice to do the autograph signings and its nice to spend time with the fans, but the feeling that you have when you're finished doing a build like that, where you actually use your hands to help build something that children are going to enjoy, it makes you feel really proud of the time that you've spent there. To see kids be able to play on this playground when we get done with it is going to be exciting. Just to be a part of that, knowing that you're helping to build a future and a safe place for kids to grow up and enjoy themselves, that's something to be proud of in life."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix:
You and the team tested at Homestead Oct. 25-26. How did that go?
"I think our qualifying stuff was okay. We would've liked to have been a little faster than what we were. But our race stuff was very good. I almost don't want to get too excited about it. We felt that we were that good compared to most of the cars that were there. Tony seems to do really well at the flat tracks when it comes to racing. It suits his style and our car setups end up suiting his style. So, we're really excited about going back there."
Was there anything in particular that you guys worked on during the test?
"We worked on a lot of long race runs and did a bunch of different chassis setup stuff - three or four types of completely different setups. We worked with all of them and found what we thought was the best, then did some fine tuning off of that and it worked out to be really good."
Has the track changed much since the last time you raced there?
"I don't know if the race track changed much. We have a little bit different tire that we're going back there with. Between the two of them, it didn't seem like we had the grip that we had there last year. It could just be the weather or the race track, another year of wear. It's getting pretty sandy, so that takes some of the grip out of the race track. Plus, the sun beats down on it all year."
With the track having less grip, will that effect tire wear?
"No. We made some 45 lap runs and our stuff looked really good. I imagine we wouldn't have any problem going a full fuel stop, which is about 66 laps or somewhere in there."
How does it feel going back to Homestead as not only the defending race winner, but as the inaugural race winner? Is there a heightened sense of pride?
"There's a certain amount of pride that this Home Depot team takes to the track every week wherever we go. We always want to win. To say that we did win the first one does mean a lot. That race track seems to fit our team's style of where we've been able to win. We're excited about going back. It's been a good race track for us. Hopefully, it'll be good to us again and we can pull ourselves back into the top-five in points."
The late race pass Tony made on Bobby Labonte in last year's race, as a crew chief, how did you handle that situation?
"Obviously there was nothing intentional. We had an awesome pit stop and Tony did an amazing job of getting off pit road and we were able to make up our time. We had a good car. Other teams stopped short to try to make up time on us. It was really just one of those racing situations. When Tony pulled off of pit road he knew the car that he had to beat was Bobby. We told him where the leader was, and I don't think Tony would've raced him any differently if it was Dale Earnhardt or anybody else. We always wish that we didn't touch that little bit, and we were very fortunate that it didn't turn out to be anything bigger than what it actually was, as far as a wreck or both of us wrecking. It wasn't that hard of a hit, but at the speeds you're going there, it doesn't take much. Some people were upset after, some people were excited when it was all said and done. It's that competitive edge that every team works to get. With our driver, it's just there all the time. Sometimes you deal with different situations. We don't have to motivate him. We just try to think and do the smart things and the right things."
In situations like that, is that when you drop the hat of mechanic and put on the hat of coach?
"With today's job, you wear both hats all the time. From the time I get up in the morning to the time I go home I wear that hat, with team members and the driver."
With Bobby looking to wrap up the championship, if that situation presents itself again, will anything be different?
"I honestly feel that the 18 car wants to win the championship and they're not going to ask us to do anything for them. They're more than capable of winning this thing. They don't need us to do anything. We're going to Homestead to win. It's that simple. That's our goal. Anything less than that we won't be satisfied with. We had a really good test. We ran really well there last year and we expect to go back and do the same thing."