TONY STEWART The More Things Change-- ATLANTA (Oct. 28, 2008) -- 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 Sprint Cup Series race at...
The More Things Change--
ATLANTA (Oct. 28, 2008) -- 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 Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing is essentially out of championship contention and in much the same position he was in 2006 and again last year when he came to the Lone Star State's 1.5-mile oval.
In 2006, Stewart was outside the Chase for the Sprint 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 the 2006 Dickies 500.
In 2007, Stewart was back in the Chase, but with only three races remaining and a 322-point deficit to championship point leader Jeff Gordon, Stewart entered last year's Dickies 500 with the same mindset he had the year before. Winning races was all that mattered, because while the championship might mathematically have been in reach, realistically, it was about as far away as Mars.
But like the championship, another Texas win wasn't in the cards for Stewart, as he finished 11th in the fall classic at Texas.
But that victory in 2006, where Stewart led eight times for a race-high 278 laps to take his first Sprint Cup win at Texas, continues to resonate, especially as Stewart looks up from his 401-point deficit to current championship leader Jimmie Johnson.
The dominant performance had been in the making for some time, as Stewart had six top-10s in his nine previous Sprint Cup races at Texas. And the authoritative run was foreshadowed earlier that year, when in April 2006 he won the second round of IROC XXX. He followed that win with a victory on the road course at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, and with a third-place finish in the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, 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 just four races ago at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway when he ended a 43-race winless streak.
Never a fan of points racing to begin with, Stewart can again eschew points for victories. And knowing what it felt like to pull the trigger on two Beretta six-shooters in Texas' victory lane in 2006, Stewart's target this year is his 34th career Sprint Cup win and his second at Texas.
Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing:
You're 401 points behind championship point leader Jimmie Johnson with only three races remaining. 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 at this time last year and the year before that 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 all but decided, but how far up the standings can you climb before the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway?
"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, and when the season is over, we'll see where we're at."
In your last seven races at Texas you've led a series-best 437 laps (18.6 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 couple of 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."
You and Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage have developed quite the rapport. How did your friendship begin?
"We've just been friends for a long time. Eddie's always been good to us, and we've spent time on the Kyle Petty Charity Ride and we've worked on some charity events together. He's a great guy, and someone I've looked to for help in my career as a track promoter at Eldora Speedway. Eddie and everyone on his staff has always been a group that we enjoy working with and have had fun with, and that's something that makes the Texas race weekend a lot more enjoyable."