Part 1 of 2. ATLANTA (Jan. 31, 2003) - One championship. Fifteen wins. Six poles. Fifty-five top-five finishes. Eighty-seven top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team have accumulated in their...
Part 1 of 2.
ATLANTA (Jan. 31, 2003) - One championship. Fifteen wins. Six poles. Fifty-five top-five finishes. Eighty-seven top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team have accumulated in their four years together in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
But despite the impressive figures, the most pressing matter of the moment is readying for the 2003 Winston Cup season. The aura of last year's championship effort has taken a back seat with another grueling, 36-race schedule looming in the not so distant future. For all intents and purposes, it's just another series of never-ending performance reviews.
As such, Stewart and the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing squad have completed two test sessions this January - one at Daytona (Fla.) and another at Las Vegas - to ready for the season-opening Daytona 500 and the weekly grind that will consume all teams right through the end of November.
For Stewart and Co., entering the upcoming season as reigning Winston Cup champions brings a sense of pride as well as heightened expectations. But on track success has never been a problem for The Home Depot team, and their hard work during their two-month off-season is testament to their goals of future success.
Despite coming to Daytona in Chevrolet sheet metal rather than Pontiac sheet metal, was your Daytona test just like any other Daytona test?
"Exactly. I've always thought testing at Daytona was a waste of time anyway, unless you were a lower team looking for a sponsor and some fast laps during testing would help you out. For a driver, you go out there and you shift three times. Once you leave pit lane you just go wide open and you leave it there. You get an out lap and two timed laps and then you bring it into the garage. That's all we do for three days. I wouldn't be surprised next year to see guys lobbying their teams to hire a driver to drive their car for three days so that they could get a couple of extra days off. You're just a passenger out there. The real work is being done by the engineers back in the garage."
Is there an advantage with the new Chevrolet?
"I really couldn't tell at Daytona. There, you just kind of strap into the thing and go. Las Vegas was good, though. We got a good sense of what the balance was like. We used the same setup that we had last year and the car was comfortable. I'd liked to have had some more cars on the track to compare it to, but overall it seemed pretty solid."
Testing is not exciting. In fact, it can be downright boring, especially at a superspeedway. How hard is it to keep your concentration, when it seems like the car is doing more work than the driver?
"The guys on the crew are working their tails off each day. But as a driver, it's extremely boring, to be perfectly honest. But your bouncing around between two cars and the guys are making small changes to each car. Everybody's working on their aerodynamics. Basically, it's just a matter of being patient and going out there and doing a good job of being consistent on each run you make. So when the crew does make their changes, they're doing it from accurate feedback."
After dealing with the disappointment of last year's Daytona 500, you came back and won the championship. Now that you have the momentum from last season, are you putting any special focus on this year's Daytona 500?
"Well, I certainly don't want to start the year that way again. If it happens that way, I'm not going to be concerned about it. We've proven to everybody that you can leave Daytona 43rd in points and still come back and win. I'm going to follow Ward Burton around for a couple of days because whatever Ward did before the Daytona 500 worked last year.
"You have to put in perspective as to what's the goal for the year? If your goal is to win the Daytona 500, you put all of your emphasis into the Daytona 500. If your goal is to win the Winston Cup championship, you have to treat the Daytona 500 the same as you do the Brickyard 400 or any other race on the schedule. There is not much I can do to prepare for the Daytona 500. It's more the team. Do I want to win it? Absolutely. Now that we won a Winston Cup championship, I would love to win a Daytona 500. If we don't win it, The Home Depot team goes to Rockingham (N.C.), Vegas, Atlanta - we take it one week at a time and just do the best we can."
Your road to the championship last year was certainly challenging. Do you feel that what you experienced last year will make it easier to repeat as champion, or do you feel that winning a championship is difficult no matter what the circumstances?
"People told me in '94 when I won my first USAC championship that it would be even harder next year to defend it. In '95, I won three championships. The way I look at it, we've just got to go out and do the same things we did last year. We need to stay out of trouble. If we can do that, I feel we'll have a better start to the year. I honestly can't imagine our season being any worse than it was last year. Even though we won the Winston Cup championship, we started off 43rd in points. I don't want to leave Daytona 43rd in points again this year. I don't want to have to battle all the adversity that we had to go through last year, all of the headaches and hassles. But because of all that, I think we're a lot better prepared for just about anything that comes our way this year. We don't have to answer the question of 'Can we win a championship,' and 'Can we overcome the adversity issue.' I think we've answered those questions to everybody. I told the guys on the team that it's my goal to win the Winston Cup Championship two years in a row. But my number one goal is to have fun this year. I've had more fun leading up to the season over the winter than I've had in a long time. I'm probably the best prepared I've ever been to go out and start racing again. This is the first good year where I've felt like I'm ready and prepared to go back racing."
Has winning the championship changed your life any?
"I'm smiling because it hasn't changed so far, and that's been fun. Everybody said that it was going to change and there were things that I would have to do, but I've always had things that I've had to do. I really haven't had to do anything differently than what I've done in the last four years of Winston Cup racing. I'm sure there will be some things that I will have to do that I haven't had to do in the past, but so far there hasn't really been anything out of the ordinary. I looked at my schedule for Daytona Speedweeks. It's pretty much the same exact schedule I had last year. The cool thing is that it's business as usual for me. Probably the only thing that's been different is when I went back home to Indiana, got to go to Columbus and spent time with my friends. It was neat. We kind of have an unspoken rule that we will talk Winston Cup racing for the first 30 minutes to an hour, then we don't talk about Winston Cup the whole rest of the time I'm there. They totally wore out that first 30 minutes to an hour they were so excited. They picked up the local paper that they had saved the week after we won the championship to see what the local paper had done. That really brought it back home to me. It's the simple things that mean the most to me. It always has and it probably always will. Picking up the local newspaper and seeing how much the town had supported me, seeing ads that local businesses bought saying, 'Congratulations Tony, we knew you could do it. We're behind you all the way.' Other than that, nothing has changed. But to be able to go home and have the town really behind me like that meant a lot to me."
What are your thoughts on NASCAR's new garage access policy, where they plan to limit the amount of people inside the garage area, especially during practice, qualifying and the race?
"I think it's something that NASCAR has looked at really hard. I think they've tried to find a common ground for the drivers and the crews and the fans. They've done a good job. It may not be perfect from the start, but the good thing about NASCAR is that they'll will make sure when it's all said and done that it'll be in the best interests of everybody involved. We do not want the fans to not be allowed in the garage area. We want them to be able to get close to the cars, teams, drivers and crews, check it out, come and see what we do in our work place. But let's do the autographs somewhere else. Every one of us does probably 40 autograph appearances a year. We can't reach everybody, but we do what we can do. There is no way we can sign autographs for everybody that wants one. We just do the best we can."
You had a chance during the off-season to compete in two of your favorite races - Turkey Night at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway and the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla. Why do you enjoy those events so much?
"To me, going to the Chili Bowl and running Turkey Night are opportunities for me to hang around with a bunch of guys that don't talk Winston Cup Racing. They talk about Sprint Car and Midget racing, and they let me be a Sprint Car and Midget driver for the weekend. They don't care what I'm doing in Winston Cup. I mean, they follow it - every one of them congratulated me on what we did. Most of them said, 'Hey, we're glad to see you back. Glad to see you can still make it.' We had fun doing stuff that we did for years before I became a Winston Cup driver. We went out and had fun when the races were over, and then we raced again the next day. I was just like one of them. They didn't put me on a pedestal. I was just one of the racers. That's what I enjoy - just being one of the guys when I get to go to events like that."
You seem to be making the transition from racing in a lot of different series to owning teams in a lot of different series. Is that true and why the transition?
"Its just circumstances in all reality. There's nothing that has changed my attitude in driving race cars. It's just that there have been some opportunities that have presented themselves. Mopar contacted me about joining our Outlaw program as an engine supplier, and that made sense for us. We started there with Mopar. Then around holiday time I got a phone call and they were interested in having me start three USAC teams. I was already involved in one USAC Silver Crown team as it was, but to have the opportunity to build my own Sprint car team and to have two really good partners with Keith Kunz on the Midget side and George Snyder on the Silver Crown side - it was too good to pass up. It gives me the opportunity on nights where I may not want to drive a car, but still allow me to go and participate and be active in a series that helped me get started - allowing me to give something back to a series that's done a lot for me. It's always important for me to go and support the series that helped me get to where I am today. Starting three USAC teams wasn't exactly what I had on my list at the end of the year, but at the same time I'm really proud and happy to be able to do what we've done so far with those teams."
Stewart, Zipadelli, part II