BUSCH: Fontana: Tony Stewart preview

Z-LINE DESIGNS RACING Tony Stewart Making a "Z-Line" to California HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Feb. 21, 2007) -- Tony Stewart has front loaded his racing schedule with appearances in the first four NASCAR Busch Series races of the season. After ...

Tony Stewart Making a "Z-Line" to California

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Feb. 21, 2007) -- Tony Stewart has front loaded his racing schedule with appearances in the first four NASCAR Busch Series races of the season. After finishing a solid eighth in last Saturday's season-opening race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, Stewart has set his sights on this Saturday's Stater Bros. 300 at California Speedway in Fontana, where he'll drive the No. 18 Z-Line Designs Chevrolet in the second race of his 12-race Busch Series schedule for 2007.

The two-time NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champion has made three previous Busch Series starts at California, with a best finish of second in his first Busch Series race at the 2-mile oval in May 2004. There, Stewart started sixth and doggedly pursued a strong Greg Biffle, but could not overcome the Roush-Fenway Racing driver's advantage.

Stewart started his second Busch Series race at California from the pole in February 2005, as he set a track record time of 38.722 seconds at 185.941 mph. Despite leading 20 laps and running in the top-10 for much of the race, Stewart finished 29th after tagging the turn four wall on the final lap to limp across the finish line.

And in his most recent Busch Series race at California in September 2006, Stewart had another solid outing, starting sixth and finishing sixth.

Saturday's Stater Bros. 300 will mark Stewart's fourth Busch Series race at California and his 67th career Busch Series start. It'll come behind the wheel of a Z-Line Designs Chevrolet fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, the team for which Stewart has driven full-time for in Nextel Cup since 1999.

However, Stewart began his Joe Gibbs Racing career in 1997-1998 when he ran a limited Busch Series schedule in preparation for a full assault on the Nextel Cup ranks in 1999. Two poles, six top-fives and eight top-10s in 27 Busch Series starts gave NASCAR fans a glimpse into Stewart's potential, something those following Stewart's exploits in the United States Auto Club (USAC) and the IRL IndyCar Series already knew, since Stewart was a four-time USAC champion and the title-winning driver of the 1997 IndyCar Series championship.

Now Stewart uses the Busch Series as an escape instead of a proving ground, cherry-picking Busch Series events where his only goal is to win, as points are of little matter when you're only running 12 of the series' 35 races.

But even with his laser-like focus on winning, Stewart has only two Busch Series wins under his belt -- back-to-back February victories at Daytona in 2005 and 2006. The restrictor plate race at Daytona is an anomaly on the Busch Series schedule, as D-shaped ovals like California make up the majority of the Busch Series' venues. Stewart wants to add a non-restrictor plate Busch Series win to his ever-growing resume, and with the powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing organization behind him at California, Stewart may very well make a "Z-Line" to victory lane with his No. 18 Z-Line Designs Chevrolet.

Tony Stewart -- driver of the No. 18 Z-Line Designs Chevrolet in the NASCAR Busch Series race at California Speedway

Fontana looks like a lot of the other 1.5-mile to 2-mile D-shaped ovals that the Busch Series visits. Is it?

"California is a lot like Michigan. I like to call it Michigan West. I'm not sure that it has the amount of banking that Michigan has, but it is a flatter track than Michigan. The way you approach the weekend is pretty much the same as far as setups on Z-Line Designs Chevrolet go. You just don't have the banking to help you like you do at Michigan."

What percentages would you put on a comparison between the importance of horsepower and handling at California?

"It's probably about 50/50. You need to have an aerodynamic car, but you've got to have the horsepower to pull it, too. You can't have one and not the other and expect to go to California and win the race."

How much do you think the Busch Series has changed from when you ran there fairly regularly in 1998?

"I think the Busch Series has progressed the same way the Nextel Cup Series has progressed. The sponsorship dollars have gone up and the level of competition has gone up. There are still a dozen good cars each week that can go out and win the race. You're still working with the same group of people who can go out and win each week.

"The cars have changed quite a bit. They have more horsepower and they're a lot more similar to a Cup car than they used to be. And the series still has some really, really good teams out there. But there's a bunch of new guys out there that you don't really know too much about. So you always have to be careful when you go out there and run with guys you don't know. You've got to learn what they do and what they don't do."

Was there much of a difference in the feel of the two cars when you made the transition from Busch to Cup in 1999?

"It's hard to say. I had a different group of guys working on my Busch car than what I had, and still have, in Nextel Cup with The Home Depot team. It seemed like it was quite a bit different in some ways, but at a big track like California, I don't anticipate there being much of a difference between the two series."

Can the knowledge that you gain from running the Busch car translate to the Cup car and vice versa?

"Absolutely. Anytime you're running for the same organization, obviously they're a little more willing to share notes. It's a lot easier than it is when I run for another team and we try to share the information."

-credit: jgr

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Drivers Tony Stewart , Greg Biffle
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing