TONY STEWART First a Bridge, Next a Win ATLANTA (Oct. 31, 2005) - Grandfather clock from Martinsville (Va.) Speedway? Got it. Five-foot tall trophy from Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway? Got that too. NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy? ...
First a Bridge, Next a Win
ATLANTA (Oct. 31, 2005) - Grandfather clock from Martinsville (Va.) Speedway? Got it. Five-foot tall trophy from Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway? Got that too. NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy? It's on the mantle.
With 24 career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series victories along with the 2002 series championship, Tony Stewart has earned some of the largest trophies available on the circuit. But in the state of Texas, where everything is bigger, Tony has what is by far the biggest trophy, even though he's never won a race in the Lone Star State.
He's got a bridge. A real one. At a race track.
Despite the driver of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing having yet to put his name on a Texas Motor Speedway trophy, Stewart's name is on the new bridge located outside the track's south tunnel.
The highway-caliber overpass that debuted this past spring was created to alleviate the crush of people, golf-carts and cars that clogged the entry and exit to the track's infield, particularly on race morning when drivers were pressed to make it from their respective sponsor's hospitality appearances outside the track to the mandatory driver's meeting inside the track.
With his entry back into the infield blocked by, of all things, the Budweiser Clydesdales, Stewart cut it particularly close to making the driver's meeting in 2004. Upon arriving at the very last moment, he eyed Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, and when the meeting finished, Stewart found Gossage to voice his displeasure.
Fast forward to 2004, where upon his purchase of the famed Eldora Speedway is Rossburg, Ohio, Stewart became a track owner. Instead of worrying about chassis setups, tire combinations and weight ratios, Stewart now had to fuss over restroom amenities, concession stand prices and ticket sales.
Needless to say, Stewart has a new outlook on track ownership, and when Gossage heard of Stewart's investment in the half-mile clay oval, the two traded stories and honors when Stewart visited Texas for this year's spring Nextel Cup race.
"After some trouble of getting in the race track on race day and getting to the driver's meeting on time, Eddie Gossage is putting a plaque up on his bridge in our honor," said Stewart. "We don't have anything quite that fancy at Eldora. But we do have a tunnel for the pedestrians to walk in, so we are going to name the pedestrian tunnel after Eddie Gossage. We thought that was a neat trade-out we could do."
Once the bridge naming is complete, Stewart will turn his attention to more serious matters - extending his lead in the championship point standings with a strong run in Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas.
Stewart was on his way to a strong run in the series' spring visit to the 1.5-mile oval. He led 45 laps and was running eighth on lap 297 when his engine blew, sending flames into the cockpit and Stewart to the infield care center where he was treated for second-degree burns on the back of his right thigh. With the early exit, Stewart finished 31st in what has been his only DNF (Did Not Finish) this season.
Stewart returns to Texas on fire, but only in the proverbial sense. He leads the championship point standings by 43 over second-place Jimmie Johnson thanks to 16 top-fives, 23 top-10s and 1,830 laps led - all series' bests. One other category that Stewart leads is wins. He has five, but so does Greg Biffle. A win at Texas would give Stewart the outright lead in wins, a true race trophy from Texas, and a tightened grip on this year's title chase.
Is this where you want to be in the points?
"No, I want to be 125 points ahead like I should be. If you take Charlotte (N.C.) out of the equation (where Stewart finished 25th after a cut tire sent him into the wall while leading), we should be over 100 points ahead of the field right now. But it is what it is. I would rather be 43 points ahead than 43 points behind right now. I don't think we can really complain about where we are. We only need to win it by one (point)."
Is the championship down to you and Jimmie Johnson?
"I wouldn't say that. There is still Greg Biffle and other guys we have to worry about in the points. We're not just racing the '48' car. We're racing the entire Chase field right now. We're not focusing on one team. We're just going to go out and do what we've done every week. It's what got us in this position."
Is the Chase now about simply getting good finishes and preventing bad finishes from happening?
"Yeah, being in the second year of this Chase, it's more about making sure you don't have bad luck at this point. It seems like that's the biggest controlling factor in the point championship. There's a reason all 10 of us got in the position we're in. It seems like the biggest changing factor each week is looking at who has bad luck."
Looking back, is there anything you'd change about this season?
"Yeah, I probably would've skipped the first half of the season because it was miserable. But we kept digging and that's the thing I'm probably most proud of. The struggles we had early in the season built character for our team and really brought us closer. This has just been a year where our team has been the strongest amongst each other. The results the last half of the season have shown that."
Of the three races left, which ones are your best tracks and which ones are you not looking forward to?
"I'm pretty excited about all of them. This is the part of the season with tracks coming up that are really good to us. Phoenix is one where I think we'll be a lot better than we were there in the spring. We've got Denny (Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate) going out there to test and we should learn a lot from his test. At Homestead (Fla.) last year, we were dominant all day. We just got caught up in the end and got an air pocket in the fuel somehow were it vapor-locked for a second and we lost spots and ended up fourth. At Texas we ran decent in the spring and we've really come on to the 1.5-mile program since Texas, so I think we're going to be a lot better too. I'm not really concerned about any of them. I'm just excited about all three of them."
Has Texas been one of the tracks on the Nextel Cup circuit where getting comfortable has been hard to achieve?
"It hasn't been a good track for us historically. It just seems like Texas is one of those places where we haven't figured out how to be a top-flight car. We've never set the world on fire at Texas - just me back in April - but we have had some solid runs. It's one of the places where we have to try and pick up our performance. For me, it comes down to just feel more than anything. A driver has to like the feel of his race car and the feel of the track. If one of those things doesn't mesh right, then you're probably not going to be as successful as you want to be."
Where are the passing zones at Texas?
"I think 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, I honestly think the groove will move up a little bit this year to where it'll be a little wider and you'll 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."
Despite the relative youth of Texas Motor Speedway, it's had a history of being a treacherous race track. Why is that?
"I've run there in a Busch car, an IRL (Indy Racing League) car and in a Cup car with this Home Depot team. I never looked at it as a treacherous race track. For some reason, it seemed that the track's transitions were very line-sensitive. The entries and exits to the corners are very tricky, and that's what makes Texas difficult. I don't think it's treacherous. You just have to hit your marks every lap. Texas doesn't leave a whole lot of room for error."
Before you raced at Texas in a stock car, you raced there in an Indy Racing League 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."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:
How similar is Texas to its sister tracks in Atlanta and Charlotte?
"We had a package last year at the mile-and-a-half ovals that we were able to take to a lot of different places. That's what we're trying to develop right now. On race weekends, our practices are so short that we really don't have time to fine tune the car with springs and bars and shocks. You don't have time to deal with A-frame lengths and spindle heights and all those other things. That's why we test. We're just trying to develop those packages, so that when we go to a place like Texas, we can just throw some springs and shocks at the car and fine tune it. That way we're not way off, searching and wasting a lot of time."
Can your history of strong runs at Atlanta translate into a good run at Texas?
"Texas is different. It's always been a place that's had a lack of grip. You don't have enough grip to get into the corners as hard as you want, and then it makes your car tight in the center and on exit. Unless you have a really well-balanced race car, Texas is a place where you can struggle. We've struggled with getting our driver comfortable in the car, to where he has a lot of confidence like he does at Atlanta, where he can just sail that thing down into the corner and know that it's going to stick."