Part 2 of 2. You've selected J.J. Yeley and Jay Drake to driver for your teams. Why them? "J.J. has always proven himself with me. He was always fast on the West Coast when he raced out there and he just keeps continuing to be a ...
Part 2 of 2.
You've selected J.J. Yeley and Jay Drake to driver for your teams. Why them?
"J.J. has always proven himself with me. He was always fast on the West Coast when he raced out there and he just keeps continuing to be a better pavement racer every time I see him. He was the perfect candidate for the Sprint car team, as far as trying to run for a championship where you can hire just a pavement driver and hire just a dirt driver. Instead, you try to find one guy who can do both, and I felt like J.J. was the best candidate to do that. As far as Jay Drake's concerned, I was a teammate with Jay back in 1995 with Lewis Racing. Jay's record speaks for itself. He's won on pavement and he's won on dirt. He's one of those guys whose pavement program, particularly in the last year, has really started to make headway. When your battling the superpowers like the Lewis Team, and running a series as competitive as Silver Crown, then you've got to have a guy that is good on both dirt and pavement, because the series runs on dirt and pavement. So we felt like Jay was the perfect mix for the program."
Knowing the path you took to get to Winston Cup, do you enjoy helping guys like J.J. Yeley and Jay Drake and nurturing that young talent because you knew the sacrifices you had to make and how it wasn't an easy road all the time?
"I didn't just appear on the scene. I had a lot of help getting to this point in my career. Every step of the way there was somebody who gave me a break or an opportunity, and if I'm able to do the same thing for some of these guys - helping them follow their dreams and progress through their career in racing - that's something outside of the race car that I can be proud of."
You've chosen not to compete in IROC this year. Why?
"I'm just trying to cut back a little bit. I ran myself into the ground last year, in a lot of different ways. Just scheduling-wise I ran myself into the ground a lot. I've cut back on some of the extra races I'm running this year. I'm cutting back on some of my appearances this year. I'm just trying to streamline my schedule a little bit more to where it gives me some time to get away and hit a reset button a little more often. I'm just trying to do a little preventive maintenance this year.
"IROC is a great series. I've always enjoyed being a part of the IROC Series, and having Danny (Lasoski, Stewart's World of Outlaws driver) involved in it again this year... it would have been a lot of fun to run with him again. But, it will be a lot of fun to be outside the car and watch him instead of having to try to look in the mirror and find him and say, 'Well, how's he doing back there?' Hopefully by being out of the car this year, I can help him a little bit more."
Is that also why you've decided not run the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day again?
"I did think about it, but I decided even before I left Homestead (Fla.) last year that I wasn't even going to try it again. It's hard. It's a strain on Greg (Zipadelli, crew chief) and the guys, and on the whole team, really. Every day that I'm up there they worry about a tire blowing out or an engine blowing or something that is out of my control to where I hit the fence and screw something up to where I can't do my job here. It's kind of like what we talked about with IROC and some of these other races that I normally run. As much as my heart wants to do it, I need to take care of what I signed up for here. I'm not being held back by any means. Joe (Gibbs) hasn't said I couldn't run it and Zippy hasn't said I couldn't run it. I just made the decision. This is what I do. I'm a stock car driver. Do I feel like I can go back there and still be competitive? Yes. But every year that I don't go back or every year since I quit running full-time in '98, it gets more difficult for me to go back because I get out of date with the technology. A lot of that stuff has passed me by. If there is ever a day that I quit Winston Cup racing, I may go back and try it. But, I think as long as I'm in Winston Cup racing I probably won't go back anymore. I'm here for a good while. Like I said, this is what I do."
Are you letting go of that dream of winning the Indianapolis 500?
"I'm not sure I've let my grip loose - at least I don't think of it that way. I look at it this way - the best I've finished there was fifth. I fall back on, 'Hey, I've won an Indy car championship, I've won a NASCAR championship, I've won three national championships in one year in USAC.' I don't have to prove I can win that race. I want to win that race really bad, but there are a lot of guys that haven't won the Indy 500. I always had the feeling that if I never won that race it was going to be a void in my career. I don't feel that way anymore. I'm pretty proud of what I've accomplished in 23 years of racing. If I get a chance to go back someday and the circumstances are right, I will. But, I think it's about priorities. I'm not going to say I'm getting wiser as I'm getting older because I'm not sure that has ever been the case. But, at least I'm trying to take care of the people who are working hard for me each week."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac...
Is it safe to say that the only goal for this team is to defend its Winston Cup Championship?
"Yes. We've had good years where we've lead the most laps, won the most races, but still, you want to be better. I'd love to win two more races next year. And obviously trying to defend our championship is first and foremost on our minds, but if we could just get our year to be a little smoother and not ride that rocky road we've ridden the last four years... that would be nice. I think we learned a lot last year, and hopefully we won't forget what we learned. We just need to carry our momentum as a group and do a better job this year."
Keeping a crew together is obviously important. In the four years that this team has been together, there's been very little employee turnover. How hard or how easy has that been?
"When we started we put a young group of people together and we all made a commitment to work together and take care of each other as best as we could as a company. Without them we couldn't have gotten as far as we have in the past four years. Everyone takes a lot of pride in what we've been able to accomplish and how we're structured. They ought to. They all helped and they're all a good group of people. They're the hardest working group of guys in the garage. I'd be willing to put them up against anybody. I've been lucky that they've all hung together and I haven't had any indication that any of them wanted to leave. To me, that's good. They all plan on being here this year and in the years to come."
This team has been competing in Winston Cup for four years. But with all this team has gone though - the good days, the bad days - do you feel that you have almost double the years of experience?
"Yeah. I think I could quit right now and write a pretty good book. For the people who have been in this sport a long time, I still don't think they could write as interesting a book as I could. There would be a lot of chapters that I wouldn't be very proud of, but they would definitely have to be in there. There have been a lot of good things that have happened to this race team, but we've also had some frustrating spots in the season where we thought we should be doing better and we haven't. There are certain race tracks where we haven't run that well. Those are the areas where we need to work harder and, basically, just pick it up. But we know that if something does happen, we can overcome it. We've overcome an awful lot in the past four years, so we're probably ready for anything."
How has the transition been from Pontiac to Chevrolet?
"We were going to face switching body styles whether we were in a Pontiac or a Chevrolet, so I think it's just us learning and understanding the new body style. It's just an awful lot of work for the guys at the shop, building 36 new cars this year. We're probably not as far along as we'd like to be, but our goal was to build good cars that we know we can race and be competitive with, rather than just to go ahead and build 10 or 12 cars for each team just for the sake of having cars built. I'm comfortable with the cars we have built. The numbers of them aren't there, but that will come. It's just a lot of work and a lot of time. Hours are all it is. It's just a lot of effort. But, our guys are doing a great job. They're adjusting well to it. The three tests we've had with the car - at Homestead (Fla.), at Daytona and at Las Vegas - were all pretty encouraging. We're looking forward to this year."
How close do you think the competition is now that everyone is running a common template car?
"I think we're going to have to see. There are some differences. I think they're a lot closer than what they were last year because each make was so different. It's just going to take some races to see which race teams make the most of their new bodies. It'll be interesting. It's a good question and we're just going to have to wait and see. The way I look at it is that it will come down to team's decisions and driver's decisions just because we're all so equal."
How much of a technology jump was it when you went from a crew chief in the NASCAR Busch North Series to a crew chief in Winston Cup?
"It's just a whole different deal when you're racing 18 races a year up in the Northeast and you're pretty much doing it all yourself. I've painted the cars, put bodies on them, wired them - you did all that stuff. But you come down South and you get more specialized in certain areas. You're dealing with more engineers, more people, more races and you're just trying to make better decisions. Every year it gets, I don't want to say complicated, but there are certainly more variables that you have to keep straight. So, I miss those days an awful lot. I enjoyed working on the cars. Now it's just more people stuff and being organized and preparing and things like that. It's definitely changed, but for the most part I still enjoy it because there are a lot different challenges."
How tough is it for a crew chief to stay ahead of the ever-increasing technology curve?
"You just try to surround yourself with good people, and hopefully they can help you do some of those things that are cutting edge. You've got to be open minded enough to take the resources around you and use them to their advantage. Sometimes that's hard when you're used to doing most of it or having most of the responsibilities. It's hard sometimes to adjust, and give other people responsibility and trust. That's a big thing."
As a crew chief, how do you go about pacing yourself and your race team for a season that races 38 weekends over a 10-month span?
"We'll just go until we can't go anymore, I guess. If you stop you're going to get run over in this sport as much as things are changing and as much as we've got going on at the shop. For myself and all of our guys, we've all gotten to take a little bit of time off. Just going to New York for the championship, it was a week off. There were a lot of things to do, but it was away from the shop and it was fun. We always shut the shop down between Christmas and New Year's. A few people worked to try to get some speedway cars done, but for the most part everybody has gotten a little bit of time off and got to enjoy themselves and their family and we're ready to go again."
Stewart, Zipadelli, part I