Las Vegas: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART No. 1 with a Bullet HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Feb. 27, 2008) -- It's a good thing for other drivers competing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series that Tony Stewart is only running a nine-race schedule. It's a bad thing for those same ...

No. 1 with a Bullet

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (Feb. 27, 2008) -- It's a good thing for other drivers competing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series that Tony Stewart is only running a nine-race schedule. It's a bad thing for those same drivers that as part of his nine-race schedule Stewart will make his third Nationwide Series start in as many races when he takes the wheel of the No. 20 Old Spice Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in Saturday's Sam's Town 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After winning the season-opening Nationwide Series race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and then following it up with a second straight win at the series' next stop in Fontana, Calif., Stewart comes into Las Vegas undefeated and atop the championship point standings.

Stewart has gotten there thanks to a familiar face giving him fast race cars and directing a pit crew that's given him equally fast pit stops. The face belongs to Dave Rogers, crew chief of the No. 20 Old Spice Toyota.

Rogers and Stewart began winning early and often as the two came to NASCAR and Joe Gibbs Racing at roughly the same time.

After winning the IRL IndyCar Series championship in 1997 and running a five-race Nationwide Series schedule for Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart ran 22 Nationwide Series races in 1998 as he prepared for his rookie season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 1999.

During that same time, Rogers took his mechanical engineering degree from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., and attended the General Motors Institute (GMI) in Flint, Mich. With a graduate education from GMI, Rogers knocked on the shop doors of Joe Gibbs Racing in 1998, and on July 1, began his first day of work.

Rogers quickly went from doing component studies to being taken under the wing of Greg Zipadelli, who joined Joe Gibbs Racing at the conclusion of the 1998 season to be the crew chief for the team's launch of a second Cup Series team in 1999.

That team was the No. 20 Home Depot team, and the trio of Stewart, Zipadelli and Rogers won 19 races and seven poles from 1999 through 2004, with the highlight being the 2002 Cup Series championship.

Rogers left the No. 20 Cup Series team at the end of 2004, but stayed within Joe Gibbs Racing. He was no longer an engineer. He was part of a new and exclusive talent pool -- the crew chief with an engineering background.

That background has paid off for the No. 20 Nationwide Series team. After finishing second in last year's owner points, Rogers has led the team to back-to-back victories to kick-off the 2008 season in style.

And with Stewart running his third straight race for the team, a third straight win is certainly possible.

The No. 20 Old Spice Toyota that will compete in the Sam's Town 300 was purposely built by Rogers for Stewart. Johnny Benson drove Chassis No. 2079 in pre-season testing at Las Vegas Jan. 30-31, where he posted the fastest time during the test's final session (29.552 seconds at 182.729 mph) on the 1.5-mile oval.

Saturday's Nationwide Series start will mark the car's debut as well as the 2008 debut of sponsor Old Spice. And since he truly is No. 1 with a bullet, Stewart plans to carry the familiar red and white colors of Old Spice to a place he's very familiar with -- victory lane.

Tony Stewart -- Driver, No. 20 Old Spice NASCAR Nationwide Series Toyota Camry at Las Vegas

Before becoming a crew chief in the Nationwide Series, Dave Rogers was your engineer on the No. 20 team in the Sprint Cup Series from 1999 through 2004. Can you talk about his evolution from championship-winning engineer -- as he was a part of your first Sprint Cup Series championship in 2002 -- to race-winning crew chief?

"It's obviously been a huge step for him. When things go wrong, they go to the crew chief first. He's the one who gets all the blame if things go wrong, and if they go right, he's get the credit too. But there's a lot of pressure in going from being an engineer to a crew chief. It's a huge step. Dave was a huge asset to a lot of our success on the Cup side. In working with Zippy (Greg Zipadelli, crew chief of the No. 20 team in the Sprint Cup Series), he paid his dues and learned enough to be a great crew chief. He's proven he's a great crew chief in the Nationwide Series. It's cool to be back working with him again and his group of guys. Working with him this year compared to the couple of races I worked with him in past seasons in the Nationwide Series where he was my crew chief, you can just hear how much more confidence he has. He's a very confident crew chief, and as a driver, that's what you want."

Last year at Las Vegas, you dealt with a freshly paved race track and an incredibly hard tire. The combination led to a lack of grip and a fair amount of discomfort in terms of the feel of your race car. But in the Nationwide Series race, you finished third and appeared to finally get a handle on the conditions. How much of a confidence boost was that third-place finish, especially going into the next day's Cup Series race?

"It was big. Obviously when you don't like the tire you're on and you don't feel comfortable out there, when you go out and have a good run, it definitely does help your confidence for Sunday. The good news is that we're not going to have to be on that tire this year for either the Nationwide race or the Cup race. And the track has seasoned in pretty quick for a year."

Dave Rogers -- Crew Chief, No. 20 Old Spice Joe Gibbs Racing Team

How has your past experience in working with Tony Stewart as his engineer in the Cup Series helped in working with him as his crew chief?

"It's very gratifying and a lot of fun. Everything comes full-circle, and this is the other end of that circle. To get to work with Tony again brings back some old memories, and I get to share some of those headaches that Zippy (Greg Zipadelli) had years ago. But truthfully, on the Nationwide side, Tony is an absolute pleasure to work for. There's no pressure. We're not points racing. This is for fun, and he makes it fun for everyone on the team.

"After having worked with him for so long in Cup, you can just read him to know what he wants and what he needs out of the race car. The car setup stuff -- that's changed so much over the years, but the relationship hasn't changed. And when you talk about relationships, my relationship with Zippy is great. I can pick up the phone can call him and he'll say, 'Hey man, we've been doing this and Tony kind of likes it.' So, I get some setup trends from Zip and I can read Tony's body language and see what he's feeling pretty quickly. So, our history together is very helpful."

How helpful is to have Tony Stewart running all of his Nationwide Series races with you and this team?

"It's great. Zippy and I have an open-door policy, as do all the crew chiefs at Joe Gibbs Racing. The more we keep our drivers in or cars, the more it seems to benefit the team as a whole. And it's a pride thing too. Our drivers are driving our race cars, and that makes the guys who build these cars feel proud and happy."

Last year it seemed like it was real difficult for drivers and crew chiefs to get a handle on the proper setup to run well at Las Vegas. After your test there in January with Johnny Benson and with the track having a year to weather and mature, along with a different tire compound, what do expect this time around?

"It's totally different. The tires changed, so we do have more grip and the track's not as slick. The track has weathered and we've lost 80-85 horsepower because of the new Nationwide engine package. It's all changed for the better. You can actually work on your race car and find speed or lose speed. I was very pleased at our Las Vegas test. Johnny Benson did an outstanding job for us. I think we have a pretty good setup that Tony will be happy with. We're looking forward to it."

How similar is Johnny Benson's driving style to Tony Stewart's?

"We haven't done a back-to-back test with Johnny and Tony, but after the first day of our Las Vegas test, we actually put Kyle Busch in the car. I think Kyle has a similar driving style to Tony's, and the comments were very similar. Johnny said the car was a little bit tight, but it's good. And Kyle got out of the car and said, 'Man, it's a little bit tight, and if we had to race I'd like to free it up some.' But for testing he thought it was really good. I think Johnny led us down the right path. I would've been alarmed if Johnny said the car was pretty neutral and Kyle got out of it and said that it was really tight or it's really loose. But we didn't have that and I think it's going to be a good transition from Johnny to Tony."

You mentioned that there's a new engine package this year. What did you have last year that you don't have this year?

"Last year, we could run whatever height spacer we wanted -- up to an inch -- on top of the carburetor, and it was just a simple spacer. Now, NASCAR mandates a tapered-hole spacer. It looks like a one-inch thick restrictor plate, but the four holes, instead of being straight through like they are on a restrictor plate, they're actually tapered. They get smaller at the bottom. That reduced our horsepower by about 85."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Drivers Tony Stewart , Johnny Benson , Kyle Busch
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing