Tony Stewart Feature

TONY STEWART FEATURE MBNA Platinum 400 Advance June 1, 1999 Note: After posting his third top-five finish in his last four starts, Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix driver Tony Stewart is up to fifth in the NASCAR Winston Cup point standings.

TONY STEWART FEATURE MBNA Platinum 400 Advance June 1, 1999

Note: After posting his third top-five finish in his last four starts, Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix driver Tony Stewart is up to fifth in the NASCAR Winston Cup point standings. Twelve races into his rookie season, Stewart has three top-five and five top-10 finishes -- the same marks Jeff Gordon had at the same point in his rookie season. However, Gordon had four DNFs and was 10th in the point standings. Stewart has no DNFs.

Stewart is one of three Grand Prix drivers ranked in the top-six in the point standings. The others are Bobby Labonte (third) and Ward Burton (sixth).

TONY STEWART (No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix): "I would say honestly the crowds at both Indianapolis and Charlotte (were the high points of his weekend). This was the first year they had driver introductions at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 500 and the reception we got there, and then come in on Rusty Wallace's helicopter and fly down the backstretch and through turns one and two and see the response of the crowd, and once we got in the convertible and rode around on the wave lap to everybody, the response from the crowd and the way the fans have supported me from these last two weeks, well, they've really been the driving force on keeping me pumped up. When I felt tired, the fans have always been there and kind of picked me up as well as the crew has. I would say the biggest thing was the fans response and the support they've given us the last two weeks."

WHAT DO YOU SEE IN JASON LEFFLER AND HIM FURTHERING HIS CAREER AT JOE GIBBS RACING? "I have had the privilege of racing with Jason and actually watching him since he came up from the 3/4 ranks in California. Watching the way his career has progressed, and driving with him on the race track as a competitor, he has owned an ability that a lot of race drivers don't show. He is the kind of guy who does ten percent talking and 90 percent listening. Most of the drivers are the other way around. They think they know everything. That was one thing the Jason really showed me; he wanted to learn. He really pays attention to what is going on. He is at the shop every day working on his race car. He really shows the interest that he wants his career to go further. Besides that, he has got the talent to drive the race car. Put those characteristics together and you make a good race car driver.

DO YOU EVER WANT TO TRY SUNDAY'S FEAT AGAIN? "We have not sit down at the shop and formally discussed it. The way we do things at Joe Gibbs racing is to sit down and talk things out together and make a group decision. This is something that the team has been involved in and should decide together. As far as I am concerned, I feel I let the guys down during the last 25 laps of the race. I felt fatigued, and I hadn't eaten very well that day. I was so worried about keeping fluids in my body, I didn't eat a lot of solid food. That is what caused me to feel ill, early in the race and late in the race. The guys were patient with me all day, and the car drove great. That was our saving grace. Having a car that drove that nice made my day a lot easier. The heat got to me early and not eating any solid food hurt me late in the race. It is not fair to those guys considering how much time and dedication they have given me. I think it was neat to do it one time. It was neat to have them involved in it, but the Winston Cup Series is my number one priority. If the Coca Cola 600 had run first and the Indy ran second, I think I would do it, but, I want to make sure I am taking care of the guys that are taking care of me. I owe these guys a lot for what they have done this season. I am not going to say that we will never do it again, but, for now I don't think you will see me do it for the next couple of years."

TALK ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH DALE EARNHARDT. "It is kind of like we don't spend a lot of time together, but, he shows up when you least expect it. He normally has a smart comment, but, he is smiling when he says it. He normally knocks you of your feet with it. I think I am still star struck by him and I don't fell like I can approach him. I still see him as an idol instead of a competitor. He came up before the race and said 'glad you can make it on time' and was joking with me about it. He was the first guy to come up to me as they were getting me out of the car and said 'what's the matter, you feel a little tired?' He's laughing the whole time and I am all worn out. I really appreciate the few moments he can spend with me. It really means a lot to me that he cares what I am doing as a race car driver."

HOW HAVE YOU GUYS PUT TOGETHER SUCH A CLOSE-KNIT TEAM SO QUICKLY?

"I wish I knew it in all honesty. If I knew what the formula was I wouldn't share it with anyone else. I wouldn't want to give anybody that advantage. It is a lot of luck in all honesty and a lot of preparation by Joe Gibbs, Jimmy Makar, and Bobby Labonte were the three people who picked Greg as my crew chief. They all asked me what I thought and I said 'I don't know the guy'. I wouldn't know him if I tripped over him, but ever since we started working together; Greg has really shown what he was made of. I thought at Daytona and Rockingham, as ill as he was and still getting the work that we needed done. As soon as he got better, our relationship really started to click. We have a lot of common interest together. This business is so serious and you have to be so serious at the race track and Greg makes sure we are all having a good time. He still makes sure we get our work done on time. When we have a spare minute, we are laughing and joking around. We just seemed to click together. If his fiance doesn't marry him then I will. I don't want to let him get away any time soon."

HOW MUCH HAVE THE EXTRA ROOKIE TEST SESSIONS HELPED? "We haven't tested everywhere we have been to, but, we have used ten of our twelve tests this year. It was a good thing for us because we are a rookie team. If I had worked with Greg in the past I don't think we would have tested this much. It has helped us with our communication and allowed us to get to know each other. Like if I say the car is a little bit loose, Greg needs to know how loose that is. His idea of loose and my idea of loose could be to different things. We felt it was important to use the test before the first round of races instead of the second round. The more time I could get into a Winston Cup car early in the season, the more I could work with Greg and the crew the better it would make us. I think it has helped our performance this year."

HOW DO YOU FEEL WHEN YOU'RE COMPARED TO JEFF GORDON? "Any time you can be compared to somebody that has had as successful career as Jeff Gordon has it's very flattering. I get along very well with Jeff Gordon. Jeff's helped me a lot. I actually drove for the same midget team as Jeff drove for two years after Jeff moved into the Busch Grand National Series. To be compared to him, it's an honor. I'm Tony Stewart. I'm not Jeff Gordon. I don't want to be another Jeff Gordon. I want to be the only Tony Stewart. I want to make my own name. I have my owns goals and aspirations in racing. It's an honor to be compared to him, but I want to be my own person. I don't want to be a clone of Jeff Gordon."

THE OTHER ROOKIES ARE STRUGGLING. WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE FOR YOU? "I think the biggest difference between the other rookies and myself is that I have a teammate that obviously runs up front in the Winston Cup Series and has a lot of knowledge about the series and cars. Bobby Labonte is like a security blanket to me, basically. If there's something where I'm struggling at the race track or I'm not sure what I'm doing is wrong, I can go over to Bobby and ask him. He'll say, 'Oh, yeah, I've had that experience also, but why don't you try this and see if that helps it. If it doesn't help it then maybe do this and tell Greg you may need to change this.' I feel like I've got an ace in the hole every time I go to the race track because I have Bobby Labonte there with his knowledge."

DID YOU BURN YOUR FEET AT CHARLOTTE AGAIN? "Actually I did burn my left heel again, not nearly to the degree we did in California. It was tender the last couple of nights, but today it feels great. I haven't had any problems walking, putting shoes on or anything. It actually wasn't a problem during the race. During the race with my stomach feeling upset the guys on the yellow flag pit stops would put ice in zip-lock bags and tape the bags shut so they wouldn't leak. That first of bags they gave me they didn't have the opportunity or enough time to tape them closed. One of the bags, once the ice melted, the water got out of the bag and went down in the seat of the car and actually soaked through the padding in the seat and got to the floor and actually the steam ended up burning my bottom a little bit. That burn was worse than my feet on Sunday. The feet have healed really well. We've been testing materials and their resistance to the heat. The dedication my guys have given me in trying to make me comfortable in the car shows how hard they work to keep my as comfortable as possible."

HAVE YOU EVER CONSIDERED EATING ENERGY BARS BEFORE IN A RACE? "Actually, they did try to give me a Power Bar on Sunday, and I'm not the biggest health food nut in the world. I'm going to speak as intelligently about this as I can, but the bar they gave me was a chocolate flavored bar, almost like taffy. They handed it in on one of the yellow flag stops along with the ice bags and an extra water bottle. For two laps I was looking at this Power Bar stuck to the end of my glove, trying to figure out how I was going to get it inside my helmet to eat it. I couldn't get it in their for a lap, but by the time I got it straightened out and got a couple of bites, it was almost like chewing gum at that point because it was so hot. I did get a couple of bites of it and threw the rest out in the infield under the caution. That helped a little bit. I think the ice bag was the biggest thing. Next time if we do (the double) again we'll make sure to keep some solid foods in me as well as fluids to prepare."

WITH YOUR WEAKENING CONDITION, DID YOU FIND YOURSELF LOSING CONCENTRATION? "No. I started feeling sick around lap 120. I called in to the guys and started feeling nauseous, and a lot of that was due to the heat more than anything. The food was a contributing factor. They really worked hard and got the ice bags in there and through the middle of the race I felt fine. It kind of fell off the last 80 laps. I really didn't notice my concentration fading, but I noticed when the car wasn't perfect, which most of the night it was pretty good, it was a little bit of a handful late in the race and that's when I felt like I wasn't 100 percent and I couldn't manhandle the car as well as I could earlier in the race."

WERE YOU ABLE TO COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY WITH GREG DURING THE RACE? "I was able to communicate with him percent. He talked to me every lap, giving me lap times and I talked to the spotter a lot. Communication went well throughout the whole evening."

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TWO TOP-10 RUNS ON THE DOUBLE DUTY? "From an historical standpoint, I feel a sense of accomplishment. Going out and trying to run 1100 miles and missing it by just seven short miles is impressive. I did something that few people would even try to do. Only three drivers have tried to complete the double and I finished more miles then the previous two drivers. The Winston Cup series was my commitment and I feel that is where my future is. It has bee a dream of mine to win the Indianapolis 500, but I got 75 guys in the Joe Gibbs racing shop that work there every day. They give me 100 percent everyday and to not give them 100 percent for a full 600 miles, I feel I have let them down. I don't think I was fair to them. I think there is the potential that someone can do better. I would like to think that I am the best guy out there, but unless you win both races, someone can do better. I don't think you will see anybody try to do it for a long time. Andretti would probable be the one guy who would try it again, but auto racing these days is so specialized that you don't see the Mario Andretti's and the A.J. Foyts that use to road race and run Indy cars. That day and age has gone by the race side because racing has become so competitive that you really have to focus 100 percent. You would have to have two separate teams. I couldn't have asked for two better teams that what I had Sunday. To do what we did would be hard to repeat."

WHY NOT TRY THE DOUBLE AGAIN? "I pretty much new when I got out of the car. It is more of a pride thing. You never want to need help to get out of a race car. Race car drivers are supposed to be tough. If the crew chief is helping you out of the car and they are giving you oxygen is a little hard to take. I didn't feel like I was out of control at the end of the race. I just didn't feel like I was 100 percent. I never gave up and the guys never gave up on me. I raced Mark Martin as hard as I could race him without losing control of the race car. If I had another ten laps there is a possibility that I could have got by him. At the same time, if I was a little fresher, I probably would not have been in that position. I think I need to concentrate on the guys who are my full time deal. I feel that we have the potential to do a lot of good things. We got a real good group of guys over there at the Joe Gibbs shop and I just want to make sure I keep everybody happy."

LOOKING FORWARD TO DOVER? "I am looking forward to Dover, because one of my best Busch finishes was at Dover Downs. We were very happy with the way we ran at Dover last year. We had a new tire there and I hope that is the tire that we use this year. It was an excellent tire. I feel really comfortable at Dover. Hopefully we will have the same kind of success this year as we did last year."

HAS IT DAWNED ON YOU YOU'RE FIFTH IN POINTS? "That is something that really perked me up in the infield care center. I still feel like I am living a dream right now and I don't want to wake up till the end of the season. If someone would have bet me that I would be in the Top five I would have thought they were crazy. It is all due to all the guys on the Home Depot team. They have done a great job, and I am the guy who gets all the publicity for it. Those guys have given me great race cars everywhere we have been. It has given me a great opportunity to learn. I told Greg that I am not happy unless I make four or five mistakes in the race so I can learn from them. I am as comfortable as I have been all year. I have been very surprised with the way the season has been going.

DO YOU FEEL A CHANGE FROM YOUR OPEN WHEEL DAYS TO NOW? "I am aware of the change, It really hasn't been an awkward change at all. Through out the 20 years of my racing career, I have moved up from go-carts to quarter-midgets to full-midgets to sprint cars to dirt modifieds to NASCAR modifieds. Every time I got into those cars for the first time, I was a rookie. I went through rookie experiences every two or three it seems like. I knew going into this season that I was going to start at ground zero just like everyone else. I knew I would get any special treatment as a rookie. I got treated as an equal. I wasn't treated any different then any other rookie. That is the way it should be. You have to prove yourself at each division. There are no free passes and no free rides. There is a reason I am a rookie. I go out every race and make a ton of mistakes. A lot of times, nobody picks up on it because the car is so good. If the car wasn't handling well I think I would have crashed. Because the car is so good, I just lose a couple of spots and say, 'OK, that didn't work.' I have no problem wearing those yellow stripes across my bumper."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief (No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix): "We thought about a year or two from now that we would be in this situation. Our goals were Top 20 at this point in the year, run as many laps and qualify as good as possible. We have had some really good success so far due to the strength of Joe Gibbs racing. They have put a great organization together; they didn't skimp on anything when they put together a second team. We got all the people we needed, and that is what elevated this team, that and great driving from Tony Stewart."

IS WINNING THE CHAMPIONSHIP THIS YEAR A REALISTIC GOAL? "I don't think that is realistic. I think we would be proud to finish in the Top 10. We are Top five right now, and it would be a great accomplishment now to stay where we are. We got a bunch of races coming up and we need to keep doing what we are doing. We need to show we can run in the Top five and Top 10 and maybe set our goals on winning a championship next year. We need the experience of racing and focus on the details to put ourselves in the position to win the cup. Making a run at a Winston Cup championship is an incredible thing, let alone winning it."

HOW WAS TONY DOING THE LAST 100 LAPS? "He did a great job all day for us. He got a little tired at the end there but still did a great job for us. He freed up the car a little be on the last stop, and he struggled to keep with it. Overall it was a great day for Joe Gibbs racing. We new going into the season that Tony was going to do this, so we did our best to give him the best car we could. Looking at everything, him having to run 1100 miles, it is phenomenal that we ended up fourth. That's all I can say about that."

WOULD YOU WANT TONY TO DO THE DOUBLE NEXT YEAR? "No, we already discussed that. I don't think it is going to be an option. He actually told me that he didn't want to do it again. I am going to make him sign a paper again when he gets to Charlotte."

TALK ABOUT WHAT TONY BRINGS TO TEAM CHEMISTRY. "He is an exceptional guy. He loves people, he loves to be around people, and he makes it interesting and more fun for us. He and the guys from the shop go bowling a couple nights a week. He keeps everybody involved rather then just seeing him at the race track. I hope things don't change, as the schedule gets busier. He has been a great motivation for our team, and I now all the guys have enjoyed it."

AT ANY POINT IN THE RACE, DID YOU WISH TONY HADN'T RUN INDY? "Not really because when we put the deal together, we new coming into this season that this was something we would have to deal with. It wouldn't be fair to sit back and say "I wish he didn't do that.' I was glad to see him finish the 500 with a Top 10 finish and then watch him come here and finishing fourth. I think it is neat to be a part of that. We new it was going to be a tough day. We came here to do the best that we could under the circumstances and I think we did a good job at it."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Ward Burton , Jeff Gordon , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , A.J. Foyt , Mark Martin