Tony Stewart, Greg Zipadelli pre-season interview

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Jan. 17, 2002) - Twelve wins. Four poles. Forty top-five finishes. Sixty-six top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team have accumulated in their three years together in the ...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Jan. 17, 2002) - Twelve wins. Four poles. Forty top-five finishes. Sixty-six top-10 finishes. Those are the numbers that Tony Stewart and The Home Depot Racing Team have accumulated in their three years together in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

But despite all that, the most pressing matter of the moment is readying for the 2002 Winston Cup season. The wins, the poles and the accolades of year's past don't mean much when another grueling, 36-race schedule looms ahead. It's just another series of never-ending performance reviews.

As such, Stewart and the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing squad are in the process of completing a three-day test at Daytona International Speedway, readying for the season-opening Daytona 500. A strong run at Daytona can translate into a strong season, especially for a team who finished second in points the previous year.

With that being the case for Stewart and Co., this off-season takes center stage.

Q: You arrived at this year's Daytona test with a new superspeedway aerodynamics package. Gone is the metal strip that went across the top of the roof as well as the lip at the top of the rear spoiler. You also have a smaller carburetor restrictor plate, down to 7/8-inch holes from the 15/16-inch holes of the year before. How have all these changes affected The Home Depot Pontiac?

TS: "It's hard to tell without having been in traffic. No one seems to be having any problems getting their cars to drive. But with the previous package, when cars where in traffic, that's when it seemed the problems would occur with some drivers and teams losing the balance of their cars. But right now, it's a little premature to know what will happen until we get back to Daytona in February and get into race practice."

Q: Does your car feel like it did back in 1999, before the last slate of aerodynamic rules changes were made?

TS: "It's hard to tell because you're running wide open, and it's easy to get the balance of your car right when you're out there by yourself."

Q: Do you like the direction NASCAR is taking with the latest revisions to the aerodynamics package?

TS: "NASCAR has proven time and time again that they're willing to change the rules at any time for any or no reason. So what we're running right now may not be what we come back here with. I don't get too excited about rules anymore because they could change at any time."

Q: Despite all the rules changes, is this Daytona test just like any other Daytona test?

TS: "Exactly. I've always thought it was a waste of time, unless you were a lower team looking for a sponsor and some fast laps during testing would help you out. For a driver, you go out there and you shift three times. Once you leave pit lane you just go wide open and you leave it there. You get an out lap and two timed laps and then you bring it into the garage. That's all we do for three days. I wouldn't be surprised next year to see guys lobbying their teams to hire a driver to drive their car for three days so that they could get a couple of extra days off. You're just a passenger out there. The real work is being done by the engineers back in the garage."

Q: Testing is not exciting. In fact, it can be downright boring, especially at a superspeedway. How hard is it to keep your concentration, when it seems like the car is doing more work than the driver?

TS: "The guys on the crew are working their tails off each day. But as a driver, it's extremely boring, to be perfectly honest. But your bouncing around between two cars and the guys are making small changes to each car. Everybody's working on their aerodynamics while they're here. Basically, it's just a matter of being patient and going out there and doing a good job of being consistent on each run you make. So when the crew does make their changes, they're doing it from accurate feedback."

Q: The #20 team has done a lot to massage the contours of the Pontiac Grand Prix - a six-year-old design. With still another year of racing with the current Grand Prix body style, is there anything left for the team to improve upon?

TS: "I'd say that with Louis Duncan (team aerodynamicist) being on board with us that if there's anything to be found, he'll find it. This Home Depot team has done a pretty good job with it, and I'd say Johnny Benson's team has done a good job with it too. Both Benson and Ken Schrader qualified well everywhere they went last year. They seemed to have found some things, which leads me to believe that maybe we can find a couple more things. We've got a really good fab shop and a really experienced group of guys in that fab shop. If there's anything to be found, those guy are going to get it, for sure."

Q: You've been a championship threat every year you've been in this series, but perhaps more so coming into 2002. Would you agree with that or would you consider 2002 just another season?

TS: "I look at it as just another year. There are so many things that can happen. Do I think we're capable of winning the championship? Absolutely. We've won 12 races in three years and have had four poles, so yeah, we're capable, especially if you look at where we've finished in points the last three years - fourth, sixth and second. Obviously, we're a contender. Situations just like what happened in February last year - I was flipping through the air down the backstretch - that hurt us in the points right off the bat. We never regained the deficit we lost that first race. It's just a hard situation to predict. I don't think anyone can honestly and accurately predict what's going to happen and who the contenders really are until it happens. There's a lot than can happen and a lot of variables can change as time goes on."

Q: You seemed surprised to finish second in points last year. What made it surprising?

TS: "If you take the point standings aside and just look at our season in 2000 and 2001, 2000 was just a much better year than 2001 was, in my opinion. We finished sixth in points that year and we won six races. Last year we finished second in a season that we felt was worse. That's what's so surprising. It just shows that there's no blueprint of what it takes to be a Winston Cup champion."

Q: The #20 team has proved that it can win races at a variety of venues. With 12 career wins under your belt and a runner-up finish in last year's point standings, is it safe to say that the only goal you and this team have in 2002 is winning a championship?

TS: "In our hearts and in our minds we want to win the championship, but being the realists that we are, we're just worried about being consistent. If we can go out there and give it 110 percent each week, taking it one race at a time, and doing the best job we can, then where we are at the end of the year is where we're going to be. As long as we know in our hearts that we gave it all we had each week, that's all we can do. We can only control the variables that we're in control of. There are so many variables that we're not in control of that we can't just sit here and say we want to win the championship this year because we finished second last year and anything but that will be disappointing. That's a foolish attitude to take so early in the season."

Q: You've won a lot of other championships in your 22 years of racing. Where would a Winston Cup championship rank?

TS: "For sure it would be number one. It's one of the toughest series to win a championship in, if not the toughest because there are so many variables out of your control. There's no other way of explaining it than that. It's pretty plain and simple."

Q: Do you feel that a Winston Cup championship is harder to win than an Indy Racing League (IRL) or USAC championship?

TS: "In all three of the divisions I ran in '95, I ran dirt races and pavement races, where we had drivers who were dirt specialists and drivers who were pavement specialists. Only a small percentage of those guys were really good on both, and that's what it takes to be a champion in those series. It's hard to go out and win races when you're competing with specialists each week, but to win championships you're really only competing amongst a very small group of drivers. In Winston Cup, everyone's a specialist. So, it's very hard to win a championship."

Q: Are the outside pressures of running for a Winston Cup championship greater than those associated with running for an IRL or USAC championship?

TS: "Absolutely, there are a lot of things in our series that you don't find in any other series, and that's because of the money and the popularity of our sport. There are some distractions that we don't really need, to be perfectly honest, but they're there each week and that's part of the battle."

Q: Is there any way to control those outside pressures?

TS: "Just turn 'em off. That's what I'm going to try to do this year. There might be some upset people along the way this year, but I'm concentrating on doing my job this year. When Joe Gibbs called me back in the day to talk about driving a race car for him, he didn't talk to me about how to deal with sponsors, NASCAR, the fans and whatever else. He talked to me about driving race cars and trying to win races and win championships for him. That's what I'm going to concentrate on this year. We're still going to try to take care of the fans and our sponsors, and do what we can to get along with NASCAR and the media, but at times concentrating on my job - driving race cars - will take priority over anything else. Anything that I feel is a distraction toward that, I'm just not going to worry about."

Q: During some down time while testing you mentioned that going into 2002 you're only going to worry about the things you can control, and for the things you can't control, you're just not going to deal with them. Is that pretty much your motto for 2002?

TS: "As much as I can, but I'm also realistic. I'm sure there are going to be some things that come up during the season that'll force my emotions to get in the way more than once - it always does. But we'll just deal with those situations as they come up and just try to do a better job of handling them this year than we did last year."

Q: You seemed to be able to have some fun during your off-season - a trip to the Bahamas, a win in the "Rumble at the Expo" in Fort Wayne, Ind., and a win at the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla. Do you feel more relaxed from all of that?

TS: "The trip to the Bahamas was relaxing. Other than that everything else wasn't too relaxing, but it was a lot of fun. I got to see a lot of my friends from my open-wheel days who I hadn't seen in a while, and I was fortunate to win a couple of races."

Q: You've got a shot to win another race before Daytona Speedweeks when you compete in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. You've tested. You've met your co-drivers. You have a fast car. How has that been?

TS: "It's been a very humbling experience, to be perfectly honest. I still feel like I can drive anything, but there are some cars when I jump in them they take me a little bit longer to get used to than others. This road course car from the Crawford team is one of them. But I've got 24 hours to figure it out. Hopefully, when it comes time to really go hard in the race I'll be able to do that for the team.

"The biggest thing has been getting all three of us (Stewart and co-drivers Johnny Mowlem and Jan Lammers) time in the car, because none of us had driven it. Plus, we've got three different sized drivers who we're trying to fit in one race car. How do we get everyone comfortable for their stint inside the car? That's been one of our biggest challenges in trying to be successful there. It's just one of the many things we're focusing on."

Q: There are a lot of familiar faces competing in the Rolex 24 Hour race with you - Jeret Schroeder, your former Indy car driver, and fellow Winston Cup drivers Kevin Harvick, Kyle Petty and John Andretti. Have you had the chance to hang out with those guys and discuss road racing?

TS: "It was good to see Jeret. We caught up on what each of us has been doing. And it was neat to see guys like Kevin Harvick and Rick Carelli there too. Even though it's a very unfamiliar series to me, there were a lot of familiar faces there."

Q: How does the sports car racing environment differ from the Winston Cup environment?

TS: "It's a lot of fun over there. There's no pressure. The driver's meeting consisted of two things. When you see the yellow lights on - come in, and remember that there's an access road to get you onto the road course versus going straight out into turn one. It was pretty straightforward and pretty simple. As much as everybody was working hard to make their cars go fast, it was a very relaxing and fun day because of that."

Q: You've driven a lot of different race cars in your life. How different is the car you're driving for the Crawford Race Cars factory team?

TS: "I've never driven any race car where I've had to sit on the right side of the car. That's probably the biggest difference. It has an open cockpit, and that doesn't bother me because of my experience in Midgets and Sprint cars and the IRL. It's kind of a cross between dealing with Winston Cup cars and Indy cars. I'm used to the speed of the Indy cars and I'm used to the speed of the Cup cars, but learning what you can get away with and what the capabilities of the car are have been the hardest parts for me. I'm always conscience about everything that I'm doing inside the car because I know that there are two other drivers sitting in the pit area that want to get seat time too. So I tried not to make any big-time mistakes. I feel like I'm capable of going faster than what I ran during our test. It's just a matter of being patient and letting it come naturally and not forcing the issue - not forcing myself to go faster when I'm not ready."

Q: Does all the experience of handling various types of race cars make you a better Winston Cup driver?

TS: "I don't think so because all of the cars I've driven are so totally different from each other. I do think it makes me a better overall race car driver, but the only thing that helps me as a Winston Cup driver is being in a Winston Cup car."

Q: What is left for you to drive?

TS: "I've been in a monster truck, so we can cross that one of the list. I haven't raced swamp buggies, motorcycles or drag cars. That's about it. There's not a lot left."

Q: You're competing in IROC again. How important is that series to you?

TS: "It's fun for me. It's nice to go out and compete against other drivers from different disciplines, and this year I get the added bonus of racing with my World of Outlaws driver Danny Lasoski. I'll probably have more fun with the series this year than in past years just because I'll be able to watch Danny and see the transitions that he's going to have to make. I'll enjoy being along there with him so that he can ask me questions and I can give him advice. I think that's just going to make this year's series a lot of fun."

Q: Do you understand Jeff Gordon's decision not to participate in IROC this season?

TS: "I didn't really read a lot on why he decided not to run IROC. But I do know that there are a lot off demands on our time and a lot of pressures. And in order to handle all that, you've got to make time for yourself. If Jeff feels like he's running out of personal time, then he made the right decision. Will it be disappointing to his fans and fans of IROC not to see him run IROC? Absolutely. But you have to do what's right for you. If he honestly needs more time for himself and he felt that IROC would just take up too much of his time, then I applaud his decision."

Q: How is Danny doing as he gets ready to defend his World of Outlaws championship?

TS: "He's excited. I'm excited this year too. Last year at this point in time we were in a stage of playing catch-up. We were just trying to get everything ready and organized to contend, let alone having to defend a title like we are this year. We already have cars built, whereas last year at this time we were still building cars. We didn't even have a trailer at this time last year. It was just a mad dash to get everything ready. The same trailer we had last year is now stocked and ready to go. The guys are able to be very meticulous about their work now. They were last year too, but it was under very stressful circumstances. I think this year the guys will be able to start the season down in Daytona and Volusia (County, Fla.) and East Bay (Fla.) and be really fresh when they get down here."

Q: How are you doing as you get ready to defend your World of Outlaws championship as a car owner?

TS: "It's no pressure for me. I don't drive the cars. The only pressure for me as a car owner is making sure that I give the team the equipment they need to do their jobs properly. Their situation is fairly similar to mine. They run over 100 races a year and there are a lot variables that are out of their control each week. So, the biggest thing for me is controlling the variables that I can control, and that means giving the team everything they need so that they can go out and do their job to the best of their ability. As long as I do that, it's up to Danny, Jimmy Carr (crew chief), the guys on the crew, and of course, a little bit of luck."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac

Q: You arrived at this year's Daytona test with a new superspeedway aerodynamics package. Gone is the metal strip that went across the top of the roof as well as the lip at the top of the rear spoiler. You also have a smaller carburetor restrictor plate, down to 7/8-inch holes from the 15/16-inch holes of the year before. How have all these changes affected The Home Depot Pontiac?

GZ: "You can't tell a whole lot right now. The rules are kind of back to the way they were two or three years ago. Drafting practice will tell us a lot more about how everyone's car feels, but I think everyone will be looking back to what they did two years ago. Back then we had bump stops and now we don't, but it's basically the same aero package. We'll just have to wait and see."

Q: Keeping a crew together is obviously important. In the three years that this team has been together, there's been very little employee turnover. How hard or how easy has that been?

GZ: "When we started we put a young group of people together and we all made a commitment to work together and take care of each other as best as we could as a company. Without them we couldn't have gotten as far as we have in the past three years. Everyone takes a lot of pride in what we've been able to accomplish and how we're structured. They ought to. They all helped and they're all a good group of people. They're the hardest working group of guys in the garage. I'd be willing to put them up against anybody. I've been lucky that they've all hung together and I haven't had any indication that any of them wanted to leave. To me, that's good. They all plan on being here this year and in the years to come."

Q: The #20 team has proved that it can win races at a variety of venues. With 12 career wins under your belt and a runner-up finish in last year's point standings, is it safe to say that the only goal you and this team have in 2002 is winning a championship?

GZ: "Honestly and truly our big goal is the championship. For me, I've got some personal goals of trying to get the #20 Home Depot Pontiac and Tony to be more consistent. I want us to be able to take bad days and make good days out of 'em. And even with some of the good days that we've had, we've been able to ruin those. So we need to level 'em off. If you were to look at our finishes and our standing in the points throughout the course of the year, it's all over the place. It's up, it's down and back up again. Those are the things you can't have if you want to win a championship, especially with the caliber of teams you're racing against. That's where we have to work to make our improvements. We still have to continue to win races. We've got to be able to run in the top-five every week. But we've got to take the bad days and turn them into top-10 or top-12 finishes. We can't have days like we had at some places last year, like Indy, where we had a top-two or three car all day and ended up 17th. Bristol (Tenn.) at the beginning of the year, where we had a top-four or five car and we wound up 25th. You could go down a list of 'em. Daytona at the beginning of the year where we were flipping down the backstretch. Kansas City (Kan.) where we were running in the top-five and we got wrecked. Some of it we couldn't control, but some of it we could. That's what we need to look at. Instead of fighting for fourth, maybe we need to concentrate on running fifth or sixth while we save our car for the end. No one wants to do that, but it's something we need to look at."

Q: The #20 team has done a lot to massage the contours of the Pontiac Grand Prix - a six-year-old design. With still another year of racing with the current Grand Prix body style, is there anything left for the team to improve upon?

GZ: "No, not really. We're actually starting to lose things because of the way they've changed the templates and the way that they're doing things in the inspection line. The changes are good, but it seems to have already hurt more than some of the other teams. Because we've worked on this car for so long, some of the little things we've been doing we can't do anymore. They're not big, but when you start adding up four, five, six little things here and there all over the car, then it does change the car."

Q: What are your thoughts so far on John Darby, the new director of competition for the Winston Cup Series?

GZ: "I got to meet with John a little bit last year when he was in the Busch Series and making the transition over here to Cup. If you've got a question he listens to you. He seems to be very fair with the inspection process, and really anything else that goes on in the garage. That's really all you can ask for. You want somebody who will listen to you and be honest and fair to every team in the garage. If some things favor you just because you're in the Chevy or Ford camp, that's one thing. But as long as John is fair about everything to everyone, that's all I ask."

Q: This team has been competing in Winston Cup for three years. But with all this team has gone though - the good days, the bad days - do you feel that you have almost six years of experience?

GZ: "Yeah. I think I could quit right now and write a pretty good book. For the people who have been in this sport a long time, I still don't think they could write as interesting a book as I could. There would be a lot of chapters that I wouldn't be very proud of, but they would definitely have to be in there. I think you could say we've got six years of experience. There have been a lot of good things that have happened to this race team, but we've also had some frustrating spots in the season where we thought we should be doing better and we haven't. There are certain race tracks where we haven't run that well. Those are the areas where we need to work harder and basically, just pick it up. But we know that if something does happen, we can overcome it. We've overcome an awful lot in the past three years, so we're probably ready for anything."

-hdr/jgr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jan Lammers , John Andretti , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Kyle Petty , Ken Schrader , Kevin Harvick , Jeret Schroeder , Johnny Benson , Rick Carelli , Danny Lasoski , Johnny Mowlem
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing