ATLANTA (June 5, 2001) - If there were ever a pivotal stage in the 36-race NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule, this would be it for Tony Stewart. This season, the months of June and July include stops at eight different venues, three of which ...
ATLANTA (June 5, 2001) - If there were ever a pivotal stage in the 36-race NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule, this would be it for Tony Stewart. This season, the months of June and July include stops at eight different venues, three of which Stewart won at last year. And when he didn't win, he finished well, recording six top-10 finishes before the month of August.
After a strong seventh-place run last weekend at Dover (Del.), Stewart comes to Michigan as not only the hottest driver on the circuit, but also as the defending race winner of the Kmart 400. Stewart's average finish in his last six races is fourth, and equally daunting to his competitors is his rise in the championship point standings. The driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac now stands fourth in points, 158 behind current leader Dale Jarrett.
During last year's June-July stretch, Stewart improved from 10th in points following the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte to fifth after an impressive win at Loudon (N.H.). If Stewart is able to replicate the summertime performance he displayed last year, the chase for the championship will likely take an interesting turn during the second half of the season.
How important is the stretch of races between June and July to you and your championship aspirations?
"It's really important, especially considering that this stretch of races is where we seem to run really well. We know the tracks where we run well and we need to capitalize on those places and hopefully gain all the points we can, because later in the season there are a couple of tracks where we typically don't run well. So, we need to make the most out of this stretch run."
Race car drivers like competing at Michigan, but some people who are outside of the race car think that racing at Michigan is boring. What do you think?
"We like to race at Michigan because the track is wide and you can run a bunch of different grooves. Depending on how your car is driving, you can run way down on the inside line or clear up to the wall, and run what appears to be two different race tracks when you do that. It gives you the opportunity as a driver to adjust your line to compensate for what the car is or isn't doing. I've never been a spectator and watched a race at Michigan, so I can't verify as to whether it's a fun race to watch or not. But from a driver's standpoint, Michigan is a track that puts the emphasis on the driver, because you're able to adjust your race car just by taking a different line around the track."
What is it going to take to win again at Michigan?
"We just need to go out and do what we did there in the spring. It's a track where I've typically struggled in qualifying, but we qualified better there in August than we had in the past. Hopefully, we can qualify even better this time and get a little better starting spot to where I don't have to work so hard to try to get to the front. Our race setup on The Home Depot Pontiac has always been good there, and I always seem to find a spot on the race track that I like in the last half of the race that no one else seems to run. We'll just keep working on the setup for that spot on the race track to where I get all that clean air to myself. Hopefully, it won't come down to a fuel mileage race."
Why does a race at Michigan always seem to come down to fuel mileage?
"I don't know. I guess it's just a characteristic of that kind of track. I haven't really been around long enough to know for sure, but it just seems like that's the magic word there - fuel economy. You try to do everything you can to make the engine run as efficiently as possible all day."
You can't stand fuel mileage-type races. Why is that?
"Because I don't know how to save fuel, basically. I think the longer you race the more you learn how to save fuel. But it seems like we've got two speeds - fast and parked. So, we'll just stick with the fast part right now and worry about the fuel mileage later."
Who do you think will be your biggest challengers at Michigan?
"It seems like there are five or six guys who always run up front there. Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte and we're pretty good there. Those are normally the guys that you have to deal with."
How big a role does drafting play at Michigan?
"It's big since Michigan is such a momentum track. You can work the draft pretty well, and if there are some guys racing up in front of you, it'll help you catch up to them. It's a place where you really have to watch and pay attention to the draft."
While you're racing at Michigan, your World of Outlaws team with driver Danny Lasoski will be competing at Bristol (Tenn.). Just as you're running for a championship so is Lasoski, albeit in different series. Do you guys share experiences as to how you're approaching your respective championship efforts?
"We've both been racing long enough and we both know what it takes to win a championship and we know what we need to do to reach our goals. We're in two different series and the emphasis on how points are scored is totally different in each series. You still have to be consistent to win in either series, but with the series Danny's involved with you get points for qualifying, heat races, main events and preliminary races that carry half the points as a main event does, so there's a different set of variables and circumstances when it comes to earning points in our two series."
Have you comprehended the fact that while you're racing for a Winston Cup championship, your first-year World of Outlaws team is also contending for a championship?
"I've always said that Jimmy Carr (crew chief) is the guy responsible for making that race team what it is. Danny's doing a great job as a driver and I'm doing everything I can as an owner to make sure that they have everything that they need to go out and do their jobs right each night. But the praise really needs to go to Jimmy Carr because he's the one who had to take all the time through the winter to make sure everything was right and ready to go by the time we went to Florida in February. He's doing a great job and I'm just kind of sitting back and enjoying it right now. I can't be at the track as much as I'd like to, but that's why we have Jimmy and a good group of guys to work on the cars to make sure that everything's done the way it needs to be done professionally."
After seeing how Joe Gibbs runs a race team, have you tried to emulate his approach to race team ownership?
"That's exactly what I've done. I've learned a lot from Joe Gibbs since I've been involved with him and his approach has obviously made him very successful with all of his race teams, and I've adopted his approach when it comes to my Outlaw team this year. As much as I want to be in control of everything I can't be there to do all that. So, it's better for me just to let the guys go out and do their jobs and let them do it properly. But if they do need me, they always know that they can call me and I'll do whatever I need to do make sure I get them what they need. In adopting Joe's philosophy, I think we've got a pretty good relationship going with the Outlaws team."