TONY STEWART The More Things Change-- ATLANTA (Oct. 31, 2007) -- The more things change, the more they stay the same. That adage is especially true for Tony Stewart as he enters this weekend's Dickies 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at...
The More Things Change--
ATLANTA (Oct. 31, 2007) -- The more things change, the more they stay the same. That adage is especially true for Tony Stewart as he enters this weekend's Dickies 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing is in much the same position he was last year when he came to the Lone Star State's 1.5-mile oval.
In 2006, Stewart was outside the Chase for the Nextel Cup, having failed to make the cut by just 16 points in what was then a 10-driver chase for the championship. With no points to worry or care about, Stewart focused on winning races. And win he did, taking three Chase races, including last year's Dickies 500.
In 2007, Stewart is in the Chase, but with only three races remaining and a 322-point deficit to championship point leader Jeff Gordon, Stewart enters this year's Dickies 500 with the same mindset he had last year. Winning races is all that matters, because while the championship might mathematically be in reach, realistically, it's about as far away as a World Series Game 5 was for the Colorado Rockies.
Like the Boston Red Sox dominated this year's World Series, Stewart dominated last year's Dickies 500. The Columbus, Ind.-native led eight times for a race-high 278 laps to take his first Nextel Cup win at Texas.
The dominant victory had been in the making, for Stewart had six top-10s in his nine previous Nextel Cup races at Texas, and his win tied him with Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Mark Martin for the most top-10s of all Nextel Cup drivers with seven.
Stewart's dominant run was foreshadowed earlier in the year, when in April 2006 he won the second round of IROC XXX. He followed that win with a victory on the road course in Daytona (Fla.), and with a third-place finish in the season finale at Atlanta, Stewart secured his first IROC championship -- the last in the 30-year history of IROC.
As the last IROC champion, Stewart has lifelong bragging rights. But in NASCAR, where it seems you're only as good as you're last race, a win in Sunday's race at Texas would give Stewart the kind of bragging rights he enjoyed earlier this season when he won three races in a four-race span by taking the checkers at Chicagoland, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen (N.Y.).
Never a fan of points racing to begin with, Stewart can now eschew points for victories. And knowing what it felt like to pull the trigger on two Beretta six-shooters in Texas' victory lane last year, Stewart's target this year is his 33rd career Nextel Cup win and his second at Texas.
Do you think that you're out of the championship?
"As far as the championship is concerned, it's out of our control. So, we're back to the mode we were in last year and that's just trying to win races. We can't do anything about the points now. It's strictly a matter of us going out and doing the best we can each week. The only way we're going to get back in it is going to be dictated by what happens to the guys in front of us. If they don't have any trouble, it doesn't matter whether we lead the most laps and win all the races, we're not going to catch them."
Is where you finish in points based more on luck than anything else?
"It just is what it is. That's the easiest way to describe it. It's more about things that are out of our control than about the things that are actually in our control."
The championship seems to be a battle between the Nos. 24 and 48 teams. Unless they totally self-destruct, do you think you can come back and contend for a championship in the season finale at Homestead (Fla.)?
"That's about the only way we have a shot. It doesn't mean we're going to quit and give up. We still have three races we can try to win here. That's what I try to do every week is win, so that's not going to change whether we have a reality of winning the championship or not. It's still about going out and doing the best you can every race. All you can do is keep your fingers crossed that things go your way. It's kind of a bad way to win a championship, because it means those guys have had to have some real bad luck, and that's something you don't wish on anybody."
In your race at Texas last in November, you completely dominated, leading eight times for a race-high 278 laps to secure your 29th career Nextel Cup victory and your first at Texas. Were you surprised by how dominant you were?
"It was obviously an awesome day. Anytime you can lead that many laps and that percentage of laps in a race, it's a good day for you. We had a car that was good all day long from start to finish. In my 28 years of racing it's rare that I've had a car that good. We could get a straightaway lead at any time. I was loose the whole day, but we were extremely fast being loose. We kept trying to get greedy because we knew at some point guys would get their cars better and I wanted to see if I could get it tightened up enough to where I could even go faster. We finally got it too tight and I had them undo a tire pressure adjustment when we came in for a two-tire stop. After that, it was right back to being really fast and we had a straightaway lead with less than 10 laps to go. We had the strongest car all day and we finished it off."
In your last five races at Texas you've led a series-best 437 laps (26.1 percent) and have run in the top-15 for almost 90 percent of those races. How have you been able to adapt to Texas' layout?
"I've found that you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy that misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn't make a mistake and you've got a little better car than they do, the groove has moved up enough over the years to where the track's a little wider, so you have more room to get a run on a guy. But as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car's handling will become more important. And when a guy makes a mistake, you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up."
Texas is a track where you've been consistently good. Does that make you more comfortable?
"Yes. Absolutely. It puts you in a positive frame of mind when you go to a track knowing that you've run well there before."
What is it, specifically, that makes you so comfortable at Texas?
"You have to be comfortable or you're not going to go fast. Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) knows how to find the kind of balance I like in the car that makes me comfortable. The more comfortable I am, the faster we go.
"This track, the grooves have moved around, especially in the last two years. We've seen the track start getting wider and Eddie (Gossage, track president) took the initiative to try to get the bumps smoother in (turns) one and two. A lot of promoters wouldn't have done that. They wouldn't have taken that much time and effort, but it's made it to where you can move around on the race track and where you can run the top side or the bottom side. It's nice from a driver's perspective to be able to have that flexibility behind the steering wheel, knowing that if your car's not driving exactly the way you want it to, you can move around the race track and find a spot the car likes better.
"Anytime you put more seasons on a race track, the better it gets because it seems like the pavement wears out on the bottom and it makes it to where you can run the top and be fast and you can run the bottom and be fast. It makes the whole race track, speed-wise, about the same, versus when they pave a race track and the only groove is right on the bottom. The fastest way is the shortest way, because it all has the same amount of grip, so the shorter distance is faster. Every year that we come here I think the racing just gets better and better, as far as being able to move around on the race track and guys not having to just follow each other and get stuck behind each other. You can actually pass. You can race. You can get away from guys if your car's fast."
Before you raced at Texas in a stock car, you raced there in an Indy car. What was the difference?
"The IRL car was nothing like driving a stock car. You could go anywhere on the track with the IRL car that you wanted to, and you could run wide-open while doing it. It was as easy as riding down the interstate, whereas with a stock car, you're not off the gas very long, but you do have to lift. With the track being so line-sensitive, it's really important that you're doing the same thing every lap, and making sure you're very consistent in how you're driving the car."