Note: A big piece of Pontiac's resurgence on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit this season is rookie Tony Stewart. After 17 races, he has four top-five and nine top-10 finishes, ranks sixth in the point standings and has no DNFs. At the same ...
Note: A big piece of Pontiac's resurgence on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit this season is rookie Tony Stewart. After 17 races, he has four top-five and nine top-10 finishes, ranks sixth in the point standings and has no DNFs. At the same point in his rookie season, Jeff Gordon had five top-five and eight top-10 finishes, as well as five DNFs. New Hampshire's "Magic Mile" is truly magical for Stewart. Enroute to his 1997 IRL championship he won a race at the one-mile track. Last year, he finished second to Pontiac teammate Buckshot Jones in the Busch Series race at Loudon.
TONY STEWART (No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix): "I've probably had the better end of the deal in all honesty compared to the other rookies this season. I've stepped into an established team that finished in the top-10 in points the last two years. I have a teammate to reflect off of and (Jones and Elliott Sadler) don't have a teammate to go to during practice and say, 'My car feels like this or that. Does your car do the same thing?' I've got a little bit of an advantage having a teammate and a team that has already been established for years. Me having the advantage of a teammate to reflect off of is probably my biggest advantage."
DISAPPOINTED YOU HAVEN'T WON YET? "Not at all. This series is all about consistency. We obviously want to win every week, but as far as the way we look at it for a rookie season if we can just be consistent, then you can worry about winning races. It means more to me to finish in the top-five three or four weeks in a row than it does to win one week and finish 30th the next week and crash the week after that. You guys (the media) are more antsy about me winning a race than I am."
EXPLAIN YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH CREW CHIEF GREG ZIPADELLI. "This is my 20th year in racing and there's probably been three or four crew chiefs that I had a relationship with like I have with Greg. Larry Curry was one of them also and there were two guys I ran midgets for that were the same way. It's all about chemistry. You sit here thinking you put a crew chief and driver together working for the same cause and how could they not get along? Like I said, in 20 years I've known four guys that fit the bill. If it was legal to marry two people I'd marry my fiancee and I'd make sure Greg was tied in there somehow so he couldn't get away either. I just want to make sure he doesn't get away. Some day when we renew my contract I'm going to make sure that he's tied into it in some way, shape or form. We'll figure something out. Relationships that you build in racing you never lose. When you have a relationship like Larry Curry and I have and like Greg and I have now, I don't think even if our future changes and we weren't with each other, I don't think the friendship would change. It's weird. It really surprised both of us. I wouldn't have known Greg Zipadelli if I had tripped over him until the first day that I saw him. I knew about him and I heard everything that Jimmy Makar, Bobby and Joe were telling me about him, but I just didn't know who he was and he didn't know anything about me. To come in and have the kind of relationship we've had, I've been very happy with it so far."
DESCRIBE GREG'S STYLE AND HOW THAT BRINGS OUT THE BEST IN YOU. "I don't think I've found anybody more intense than Greg, that's for sure. When we started this year and came to Daytona and Rockingham, Greg was pretty ill with hepatitis, but he never missed a day of work. The doctor told him to be flat on his back and not move for two weeks and he was working on race cars every day. That intensity, I think, is what has gotten Greg to this level. No matter how good a day or how bad a day we're having, even when we're having a good day, Greg is always trying to find something else to make us a little better. That's probably the thing I like about him the most. He never quits no matter how good we think the car is. He's always trying to make it one step better and stay one step ahead of everybody else. He's got a lot of knowledge for his age and I feel like I'm lucky to have him."
TALK ABOUT THE TRANSITION FROM BUSCH TO WINSTON CUP. "The Busch car versus the Cup car it seems like you have to have the car on the ragged edge every lap in order to be competitive and be fast. The Winston Cup cars have extra horsepower and you don't necessarilyn have to be perfect every lap and you don't have to overdrive the car every lap to be quick. Some times when you slow down you go faster in this car. I can probably hold my breath for a minute-and-a-half after running the Busch car alast year versus a Cup car because you're always on the edge of your seat and you feel like you're just on the verge sof out of control to be fast in a Busch car. Everybody in the Busch Series is trying to get to Winston Cup and everybody's trying to run 100 percent every lap every race. In the Cup cars, the drivers are normally more patient because the races are normally twice as long. A lot of the time you end up having a lot longer runs in between stops. You don't have as many cautions and you just have to be more patient in the car."
WHAT DRIVER HAS HELPED YOU OUT THE MOST THIS YEAR OTHER THAN BOBBY LABONTE? "Everybody pretty much is helpful. I think these guys understand that you're rookies and that you're going to make mistakes. They don't want you making mistakes in front of them that can cost them a bad race or a wreck that takes them out of the championship. They're all pretty helpful to a certain degree in making sure that if you're not comfortable about something they do everything they can. I guess as ironic as it sounds Mike Skinner has probably been one of the guys that has helped me the most outside of Bobby. It's kind of been a unique situation with our sponsors having conflicts with one another, but he's probably helped me more than anybody outside of Bobby so far."
ANYTHING THAT HAS REALLY CAUGHT YOU BY SURPRISE SO FAR IN YOUR ROOKIE SEASON? "Just the way we've run, honestly. I figured at this point in the season if you went to our race shop you'd see Bobby's cars in one piece on one side of the room and the other side of the room would look like a salvage yard with front clips off of them and rear clips off of them. Probably that's been the biggest thing. Outside of driving the race car, the fans have been something that I didn't expect. The fans have been unreal this year. That's probably been the most fun aspect of being a Winston Cup driver this year, seeing the excitement the fans generate each week and being able to have fun and participate for them."
WHAT'S BEEN THE BIGGEST STRUGGLE -- RACING OR QUALIFYING? "Both. Qualifying is every bit as competitive, if not more competitive, than the races at times. You look at the time sheets from qualifying and you have 40 guys that are within three tenths of a second of each other at a lot of the race tracks. You can't bobble, especially with Cup qualifycing having two rounds most of the tracks we go to, a lot of time you only get one lap. You know if you make one small mistake it costs you two tenths of a second and that's the difference between making a show and missing a show. For all of us (rookies) the first four races were really important. We couldn't afford to make mistakes. It's a good exercise in holding your breath and not blinking, not sneezing, not scratching your nose, nothing. You have to be perfect for one lap and do everything you can to get in and then you have to switch modes and pretty much focus another 50 percent and the other half of your time on the race setups. That's equally important."
YOU'VE FARED WELL IN COMPETITION AT NEW HAMPSHIRE. WHAT ARE YOU CHANCES IN A WINSTON CUP RACE? "I'd love to think that's a good omen. The IRL cars versus the Busch cars and I'm sure versus the Cup cars, you might as well throw the IRL equation out of it. It's comparing apples to oranges. Beinag able to run second there last year I'm looking forward to going there. I've had good runs there. I know Greg Zipadelli's looking forward to it because that's kind of his home track in the Cup series. I know we're going to work really hard to be as competitive as we can be."
IS A WIN EMINENT CONSIDERING HOW WELL YOU'VE RUN THIS SEASON? "I don't know, if it happens it happens and if it doesn't it doesn't. I've got my own goals I set each week and that's what I'm focusing on. I hear the same things you're probably hearing too, but who knows what is going to happen? If I knew what the future was I'd probably be doing something other than driving race cars because I'd be making a lot of money if I could predict what was in my future. Who knows? The second time around I think we're excited about coming back to tracks we've already run on this year and we've got a base setup that we're comfortable with. Then you fine-tune to the different part of the season where the tracks are a lot warmer and the conditions change a little bit, but I hope to be here a long time, so one year out of 20 or so years in Winston Cup I'm not real antsy or worried about that first one. I'm just worried about learning as much as possible and finishing races and just trying to be consistent."
YOU WON THE POLE BUT STRUGGLED AT MARTINSVILLE, A TRACK SIMILAR TO NEW HAMPSHIRE. WHAT'S THE CHALLENGE AT THE 'MAGIC MILE?' "We've got to work on our flat track program a little more. Martinsville is Martinsville. It's two dragstrips and two hairpins. Loudon is a little more of a typical oval, even though it's flat, it's different than Martinsville. But if you can get your car to work at Martinsville I don't see why you couldn't get it to work at Loudon. We need to make our race setup a little better than what we had at Martinsville. Basically, the challenge is getting your car to turn in the center of the corner. That seemed to be the biggest challenge last year with the Busch cars. I think that will be the same thing with the Winston Cup car. With the track being so flat, the asphalt is a little bit different mix than we see anywhere else. It tends to be a little slippery. Being able to get the car to cut in the center of the corner and making sure you keep enough forward bite in it are probably two of the biggest challenges you have."
IT SEEMS LIKE IT'S REALLY HARD TO PASS THERE. "That's because everybody is so competitive. If you had guys a second off the pace it would be easy to get around them. In this series, you can tell by the qualifying times how competitive this series is. When cars are that close, about the only way you can get by is for a guy to make a mistake or for a guy to really get his car right. It makes it hard to pass, but it makes for a great show, too."
HOW HAVE YOU DEALT WITH YOUR INCREASED NOTORIETY? "I felt like I arrived as a Winston Cup driver when I came through the tunnel the other day and turned right to come towards the garage area and there was a orange school bus with Home Depot and 20, Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs Racing, and I thought, 'I've arrived.' When a school bus in the infield is painted up in my colors I'm a Winston Cup driver now. The fans have been awesome this year. That's been my favorite part of this series so far this year to see the excitement each Sunday. When you look up in the stands and there's 200,000 people out there and 90 percent of them have a drivers T-shirt on them, that just shows how popular this sport is. To be a part of that excitement, that's what it's all about to me. I'm the only driver that goes out and does three autograph sessions at his T-shirt trailer every weekend. I do it because I enjoy it, not because it's a hassle. Even when we have a bad day I still go out. I might not be in a hurry to go out and do it, but I still go out and do it. At the end of an hour session out there, even when you've had a bad day, the crowd makes you feel good and you think, 'Well, it wasn't as bad as I thought it was. Everything will be better tomorrow.' We have a lot of fun with the fans."