Tony Steward press conference

TONY STEWART, NO. 20 HOME DEPOT PONTIAC GRAND PRIX: IS IT A NICE FEELING TO BE ATOP THE POINT STANDINGS? "Yeah, I just wish we'd had some time to enjoy it so far. But, we're in Lakeland, Fla., today. This is our second day down here testing,...

TONY STEWART, NO. 20 HOME DEPOT PONTIAC GRAND PRIX:

IS IT A NICE FEELING TO BE ATOP THE POINT STANDINGS?

"Yeah, I just wish we'd had some time to enjoy it so far. But, we're in Lakeland, Fla., today. This is our second day down here testing, so as much as we enjoyed leaving Talladega with the point lead the work continues."

ON CHARLOTTE

"I enjoy it. Of the mile and a half tracks, it's probably the one that remains that the handling of the car is as much mechanical balance as it is aero balance, where a lot of the other mile and a half ovals we go to, you hear more people putting the emphasis on aero balance. Mechanical balance still seems to be the number one importance at Charlotte. Hopefully, we'll have the same results or one spot better than what we had last year there."

AFTER YOUR 43RD PLACE FINISH AT DAYTONA IN WEEK ONE, YOU CHOSE TO DRIVE BACK TO CHARLOTTE TO DO SOME THINKING. AT ANY POINT DURING THAT DRIVE DID YOU EVER THINK YOU'D BE IN THIS POSITION - LEADING THE POINTS WITH SIX RACES TO GO?

"No, not at all. To be honest, that drive home - after being in Daytona for 10 days and having just the awesome week we had going on down there, wining the Shootout and winning the IROC race and finishing second in the '125' - it was just one of those trips home that you just tried to relieve yourself of all the stress of 10 straight days. But, there was no way I ever could have dreamed, after Daytona, that we were going to be where we are today. It just shows that you can't give up. Leaving the speedway there that day 43rd in points and knowing that there were 35 more races on the schedule, you know you just can't give up and you've got to give 100 percent every race. You know that there is potential that the guys you're competing against are going to have days like that, also. I honestly didn't think we would be in this position at this point in the season, to be honest."

YOU'VE GOT A VERY GOOD RECORD AT THE TRACKS COMING UP...DO YOU SEE ANY NEGATIVES WITH THOSE RACES?

"The negatives, in my opinion, are just that there are too many variables that are out of our control, unfortunately. I am excited, looking at the remainder of the schedule and looking at tracks that we're going to, and the success that we've had at all of those. Not all of those have produced wins, obviously, but we've produced some very solid finishes at all the remaining tracks. That part is positive. Right now the only thing we can do as a race team is just try to control the variables that we're in control of. We can't really take a lot of time to think about the negatives of it because it's stuff that really isn't in our control anyway. We're just focusing on the things that we can control and trying to control our destiny from that standpoint."

DID YOU CONSIDER THE TALLADEGA RACE AS THE BIGGEST VARIABLE THAT WAS LEFT THIS YEAR THAT WAS LARGELY OUT OF YOUR CONTROL?

"Absolutely. Everybody was talking about the points going into that race. I think we were 36 points out of the lead at that point. Everybody was talking about, 'What do you think your chances are for the Winston Cup points championship?'

"I told them, I said, 'Let's wait until after Talladega and then we'll talk about it.' For me, that was the biggest hurdle of the remaining races, was just getting through Talladega in one piece. I didn't anticipate us having as good of a day as we had, by any means. I was very satisfied with the outcome of this past weekend's race. Now that we've got that out of the way, I look at the remainder of the schedule as races where you race the racetrack, you race each other, but you're not dependent on everybody else. I at least feel like we're a lot more in control of what's going on than what we were before Talladega."

ON YOUR DECISION NOT TO TRY TO PASS DALE JR. ON SUNDAY

"The good thing about restrictor plate racing, when you are in a single-file line, it does give you a little time to think about what you are going to do. Sitting there in second, I honestly didn't know that Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin had had his problem and that Jeff Gordon had had his problem, so I really wasn't aware of where they were on the racetrack or that they had all had trouble at that point of the race. But, honestly, my thought process was that we were sitting there in second, the guy in front of us - Dale Jr. - wasn't one of the top five guys in the point standings, so I didn't see us losing anything to him by running behind him. It's no secret that he has had one of the best restrictor plate cars and restrictor plate programs in Winston Cup racing in the last year and a half or two years, and at the same time, he was racing for a $1 million bonus. It was going to be awfully hard to get by him. But, in my opinion, the risk of trying go by him wasn't worth losing four or five spots and losing those valuable points. Aside from that, to be perfectly honest, Dale and I have always had a really good relationship when it came to restrictor plate racing and we've always worked really well together. Last year when we won the Shootout he worked with me there at the end. I know he wanted to win the race, but we've always worked well together and he took care of me there and we won the Shootout. We took care of him Sunday and he won a million dollar bonus from Winston. I think we've always worked well together. It gives him confidence. It gives me confidence. As much as you want to control your own destiny as an individual car, at restrictor plate races you just can't do that. You have to have somebody helping you. With him leading us and knowing that I was going to take care of him, he was taking care of me at the same time. I called my spotter and had him run down and say, 'Hey, I need him to come off the corner a little lower to help me protect the bottom.' A couple laps later after the message had been relayed, he was doing that and that was helping me protect my spot. We just work together real well. As much as I would have loved to have won the race, the big picture was a lot more important to me. Dale had his set of agendas for why he wanted to win the race, and as much as I wanted to win, second place was like a victory, to a certain degree, for us. That's why we worked so well together there at the end of the race."

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO BE LEADING THE CHAMPIONSHIP CHASE RIGHT NOW?

"I'm ecstatic, to be honest. Like [I said before], that first race of the year when we left Daytona, we were devastated after the week that we had had. We've always known that the first eight races of the year are where we get ourselves at such a deficit that we never can recover from it for the remainder of the season. Starting the first race of the year, leaving there in 43rd in the points, it was falling right into that pattern again. To be leading now, we're so excited. After all the things that have happened - getting crashed at Darlington and spending a night in the hospital there, then having to get out of the car at Bristol after we ran in the top five all day there, going to Daytona again in July and getting wrecked - we were running 42nd, I think, when we got wrecked. There were just so many things happening all year - whether it's been motor failures or whatever - we've had seven DNFs this year. To be leading the point standings after seven DNFs, I think that is pretty impressive and shows what this team is really made of. When we don't have a problem we have a lot of strength. As long as we don't have those major problems we're producing good finishes and that is what has helped get us back where we are right now.

"I'm cautiously optimistic right now. I've run for enough points championships in 23 years of racing - and won enough championships - I mean, there are six races left to go and the best attitude that we can take going into those six races is, 'We've got to win a couple of these.' We want to win a couple of these races coming up and if we do that, the points will take care of themselves. As much as we want to protect our lead, the best way to protect our lead is go out and win races and then the points seem to take care of themselves."

DOES THIS COMPARE TO WHEN YOU WON THREE USAC CHAMPIONSHIPS IN 1995?

"That's kind of where our attitude has come from. I explained to the guys that when we won three championships in '95, you couldn't protect it and the attitude never was to protect a lead. It was to go out and just try to win races. It seems like every time that we were leading the points and we won a race, it just took that much more wind out of the competitors' sails. If we can go out and just produce some top five finishes and if we can win a couple in the meantime, that is exactly what we have to do to finish this thing off."

DO YOU THINK YOU'VE FINALLY CAUGHT A BREAK, AS FAR AS STUPID STUFF HAPPENING?

"I kind of somewhat agree. But, I think it's just finally to a point where we've had so much bad luck this year that anytime anything is just somewhat normal we feel like it is good luck to a certain degree. I think it just boils down to, 'How much bad luck can one team really have and for how long?' We have all the right people in place. We have all the right equipment in place. I think it was just a matter of time before we finally shook off some of the bad luck. It's not that we're having a good luck now, but we've just finally gotten rid of the bad luck. You can look at it many ways. I think a lot of people are saying, 'Well, if they {Martin, Johnson and Gordon) didn't have their problems last weekend, we wouldn't be where we are.' We look at it as, 'We spotted them seven races early in the year.'

"If we just take one of those out of there we're still leading the points. I think, from our standpoint, we feel like we've earned our position in the point standings right now. We feel like we're finally, hopefully, getting some of this bad luck behind us. And, knowing that this string of races we have coming up to the end here are tracks that we've always performed well at, I think that is giving us all confidence, saying, 'Hey, we have an opportunity to finish this thing off right.' Like I say, we're controlling the things we can control right now and the rest of it will just have to take care of itself."

WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR TEST AT LAKELAND?

"Trying to win a race, to be honest. That is our attitude. We should have won the spring race there (at Martinsville). To be honest, I made the bad call of wanting to come in and put tires on. I figured everybody was going to. We still got back up to third place, but we felt like we gave away a win that day. Our teammate won the race, which we were happy about. If we couldn't win it, we were glad that he did. But at the same time, we knew that we were a little faster than Bobby was and that if we had stayed out that we could have won the race. But, you can look back. Hindsight in always 20/20. Like I said, as much as we're enjoying where we are in the point standings right now, when we left the track Sunday night we weren't talking about the point standings. We were talking about, 'Hey, we've got two days of testing at Lakeland to get ready for the Martinsville race and what can we do to make ourselves better than what we are.' It just falls into that category of controlling what we can control. We're down here working on stuff that we feel like will hopefully give us a little bit more of an edge, if we have an edge at Martinsville. If not, hopefully it will get us caught up to where we need to be there. This team is working extremely hard to make sure that we do everything we can to win this points championship. We're all working very, very hard and long hours right now to accomplish that goal."

ARE MARTINSVILLE AND HOMESTEAD THE TWO TRACKS YOU FEEL MOST COMFORTABLE AT THE REST OF THE WAY?

"I've always felt good at Charlotte. We've always run really well there. We're going to Charlotte this week and then Martinsville next week. I enjoy Rockingham. We've won at Atlanta, so I definitely have a confidence boost going back into Atlanta. We've won at Phoenix already. That is kind of my 'west coast, home-away-from-home.' Obviously, Homestead speaks for itself with our record of leading laps down there.

"I'm very, very confident at the last six races that we're going to of what we're doing, so I'm pretty excited about what is coming up."

OF THE OTHER GUYS IN THE POINTS RACE, IS THERE ONE GUY THAT STANDS OUT IN YOUR MIND AS YOUR TOUGHEST CHALLENGE?

"I don't think anybody is out of it, by any means. It's like we mentioned earlier, when I won the three championships in '95, the hardest of the three divisions to win was the Silver Crown Series with USAC. I went into that race third in points. Mathematically, I was still in the championship hunt.

"Practically speaking, if you had to bet on the three drivers that mathematically were still in it, nobody would have bet on us. But, both of those guys had trouble in the last race and we beat them by two points and that's how we ended up winning the three titles.

"If you look at where Jeff [Gordon] was going into last Sunday, he was within striking distance, very easily. One day, you see what it did to him. Any of us that are in the top 10 in points, if we have one bad day the results can be the same, so you never can count him out. Everybody that is in front of him in the standings right now could have that same day and everybody is right back to where we were going into last weekend. I can't really say that there is any one particular driver that we're worried about. Everybody that is in the top 10 - there is a reason they're in the top 10 and it's because they're competitive drivers and have the capability of winning races. You have to not necessarily be worried about all of them, but you have to be conscious of the fact that they all have the capability of winning. We just have to go out and do our job. Right now, they are chasing us. We're not chasing anybody."

DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU ARE A MAN ON A MISSION?

"I don't think so. I'm a race car driver. I've been racing 23 years now. I enjoy going out and winning races, and I've enjoyed winning championships and there is nothing different today. A Winston Cup championship would definitely be the highlight of my career, obviously. But to me, it's still about basics. You can kind of pump it up as much as you want to pump it up, but we're down to one thing. It's about trying to go out and win. The formula for that is a very simple formula. You work hard and you do the best you can to control what you can control and not worry about the things that are out of your control. We're sticking to the basics here. You can definitely over-engineer yourself and take yourself out of the championship hunt. My experience with running for multiple championships at times in the past has helped prepare me for the scenario we're in now. My crew chief and team - it hasn't necessarily been with Winston Cup - but, they've all been in these positions. Greg Zipadelli has been in championship positions in the past and knows how to race for a championship. All of our crew guys have all come from different series and they've all been a part of championship winning teams, too. Every one of us knows what we're involved in and what we're a part of now and what we have to do to keep things in our control right now."

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT ALL THE OTHER DRIVERS POINTING TO YOU AS THE FAVORITE?

"It's flattering. The past three or four weeks we haven't exactly been in the perfect position to be not only leading the points, but be a contender to win the championship. We've been closer than we've ever been. But for those guys to look at us that far back and say, 'Hey, this is the guy that we fee like we're going to be racing against for the title,' it's very flattering from our standpoint. I think all the drivers and all the teams are pretty smart about knowing how is strong and who is showing a lot of strength and who is struggling. But, I think that our performance lately has shown why we feel like we are a contender for this title and I think everybody else is seeing that, too. It's nothing that has been a secret to any of us.

"We just have needed to do what we've been doing the last couple weeks and that is just to be consistent and be in the top five every week. If we do that, the rest of it will take care of itself. Everybody is pretty conscious of it. We're looking at other drivers the same way, saying, 'These are the guys.' We can't really pick one guy and say, 'This is the guy we're going to be racing.' There are too many variables and too many things that can happen. We're looking at a group of guys, saying, 'This is the group that we're racing for the championship right now.'

"It's kind of nice knowing that they felt that way. It gives us a lot of confidence."

HOW DID IT FEEL WHEN YOU LEARNED YOU WERE THE POINTS LEADER SUNDAY?

"To be honest, I was cautiously optimistic - if that is the right term to use right now. I was very excited because this team deserves to be in the point lead. They've worked as hard, if not harder, than any Winston Cup team out there to get us in that position. Like we mentioned earlier, there have been peaks and a lot of valleys to go through this year and not once has this team ever given up, not once have they ever shown signs of backing down or giving up in any way shape or form. The feeling of accomplishment was not so much from my standpoint, but I felt so happy for the race team, knowing how hard they've worked to get us to that position. My first thought that went through my mind when they told me that was, 'Hey, we've still got six races to go. A lot can happen.' As much as I would love to be doing back-flips right now, we've got a lot of work to do, and everybody else is saying the same thing. We all have a lot of work to do. There are six more hard weeks of Winston Cup racing that have to take place. I'm hoping that after six weeks we can say that I'm still the Winston Cup points leader. At that point, I think the emotion will be a lot stronger than it is right now. I think I'm just trying to be realistic about the position we're in and trying to keep our focus where it needs to be. As much as we'd like to be celebrating our first chance at leading the Winston Cup point standings, we've got a lot of work to do to try to hold onto that right now."

HOW BIG WILL THE PARTY BE IF YOU WIN?

"There's one thing - I've never thrown a small party in my life, so I can promise you that if we accomplish this goal it is going to be huge."

-pontiac-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson , Mark Martin