Athlon Sports sits down with the 2002 Cup champion to talk about where he's been and hopes to go
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The following article was originally published in 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
Tony Stewart, the 2002 Cup champion, finished sixth in the 2004 standings after winning races at Chicagoland Speedway and Watkins Glen, bringing his career total to 19 victories in stock car racing’s top series.
Stewart was not happy with his season, however. The Chase for the Nextel Cup format, with a champion determined by the season’s final 10 races, seemed made to order for Stewart, who had a history of closing fast in his Cup career. But Stewart was never really a factor in the Chase.
Stewart returns to the No. 20 Chevrolet owned by Joe Gibbs, with Greg Zipadelli as his crew chief, for his seventh season of Cup competition in 2005. Stewart sat down with Athlon Sports to talk about where he’s been and where he hopes to go in the sport.
Athlon Sports: Look back at the 2004 season for a minute. You won two races and made the Chase for the Nextel Cup. But you got wrecked in the first Chase race at New Hampshire and then never really got untracked after that.
Tony Stewart: I don’t think there were very many highlights for us, to be honest. I think we had a very terrible season. It wasn’t our worst finish in the point standings, but we just really never had that pizzazz we’ve had in the past in the second half of the season. We didn’t have it in the first half, either. I really felt like our whole Joe Gibbs Racing organization struggled and we’ve got a lot of improving to do for 2005.
AS: What went wrong?
Stewart: Well, if we knew the reason we would have fixed it by now. I can promise you that one reason wasn’t due to a lack of determination and effort on our team’s part. Everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing has dug their heels in, but we just couldn’t find that missing piece to the equation. I can promise you that when we do, we will be back on form again, and after having a year like we had in 2004, if we can get it back on track in 2005, we’ll be tough to beat.
AS: Have you made any major changes in the team for 2005?
Stewart: Personnel-wise, we’ll be the same. That’s something I am really proud of. Our team has stayed intact through the whole time I’ve been there. We’ve only had a couple of changes. All we’ve done is add people. Everybody will have to make changes for 2005 because of the different rules package, but you just have to go out and do the work and see what you can do.
AS: What would you do to change the way the Nextel Cup champion is now determined?
Stewart: It’s not my job to do that. I’m a race car driver. It’s hard enough just trying to concentrate on doing my job each week, let alone trying to do NASCAR’s job for them. I think they do a pretty good job on their own. We don’t need to be promoters, we don’t need to be NASCAR. That’s why they pay guys like Mike Helton the big money they pay him — to worry about those problems.
AS: You won a championship under the former system and Kurt Busch won his under the Chase system. How much respect do you have for what he accomplished in 2004?
Stewart: If you look at some of the problems he had in the last 10 races, there were three or four times where he had to bounce back and overcome problems. That’s what you have to do to win any championship. He performed well when he didn’t have problems, and in the races where he did, he rebounded and performed well in some of those. You have to give him a lot of respect.
AS: Which was harder to win, the championship under the system in which you won it or under the system in 2004?
Stewart: I don’t know. Every year is so different. It’s really hard to say. If you could put back-to-back two identical years it would be easier to compare. I think the whole moral to the story is that we all know what the system is going into the season. It is what it is and we aren’t going to change it. We couldn’t if we wanted to. It’s fair for everybody. There’s nothing that’s unfair about the system. We know what it is and it’s our job to go out and do the best we can with it.
AS: You’ve had your share of disagreements with NASCAR, with fellow competitors and with members of the media over your years in the sport, and sometimes you’ve gotten in hot water over some of those. Last year, though, you had a chance to be sort of a bystander and see the controversy that followed a 25-point penalty against Dale Earnhardt Jr. for using a four-letter word in Victory Lane. What was your view of that situation? Did you have empathy for Dale Jr.?
Stewart: I think that was highly blown way out of proportion. I think we’re starting to nit-pick and scrutinize way too much in this series. Since when does something that somebody says have an effect on winning the championship? And when should it have that effect? From the time that car goes through tech, to the time that checkered flag drops — any time in that period where anything that happens can affect how the race was run — that’s when points should be taken away, not something that happens before that period and not anything that happens after that period.
The last time I checked, we had freedom of speech, correct? Since when has that changed now? I didn’t know the Constitution changed. What Dale Jr. said didn’t cheat anybody on the race track. It didn’t have any effect on how the race was run.
Where is the process going to stop? What’s going to be the next thing now? If we don’t show up to the car for practice on time are we going to lose 25 points for that next? Where is it realistically going to end?
AS: Let’s talk about some of the things you’ve faced in NASCAR. Do you feel like people already have their minds made up about you in a way that makes any incident that happens anywhere around you automatically your fault?
Stewart: I don’t think it’s me on the track that has given me two strikes (against me), I think it’s the way I’ve handled things off the track that has given me those strikes. Just like the deal at Chicago (where Kasey Kahne wrecked after contact from Stewart on a restart). If NASCAR thought I did something wrong, they would have done something obviously. I talked to NASCAR, Kasey talked to NASCAR, (and) their explanation of what happened in what they showed me backed up exactly what I said happened. I stuck to my guns saying I didn’t do anything wrong. The reason I did that was because I didn’t do anything wrong.
At the same time, if I do something off the track, I know I’ve got those two strikes on me already. This is not the deal to go through as a driver. It’s not just about driving race cars any more — that’s the way up to this point it’s always been. Now, we’re representing multi-billion dollar companies and we have a TV package. NASCAR is very image-conscious now, which they haven’t always been.
Driving the race car, which is what I got hired to do in the first place, and what I have been doing the past 25 years of my life, is only a fractional part of my overall job as a Nextel Cup driver. There’s a lot more changes that go on in your life than the media could understand in one conversation. It’s something you really have to be behind the scenes. You need to live it and breathe for more than a day or two or a week to fully understand what all is involved in it.
AS: To a degree, is it OK with you if you get a “bad boy” label hung on you?
Stewart: Look at wrestling. If you had all the popular guys, the “good” guys in the sport, and you had them wrestling each other each week, I’m not sure it would be as appealing to the fans as if you got somebody that people like and somebody that they dislike. So I think that adds flavor to the sport. I don’t really take it personal. I don’t think it’s a personal deal; it’s just a title that’s given to many of us. I guess I lead the pack of the bad boy group. I think there are fans out there that are looking for that guy. Dale Earnhardt didn’t get his reputation or popularity by being a good guy. He got it by being aggressive, and he was probably the bad boy in his era. So I don’t think it’s such a bad thing after all.
AS: At times you’ve hinted that the frustrations of dealing with the rigors of being a Cup driver might just lead you to get out of NASCAR and just go race sprint cars somewhere. Is that really something you think about doing?
Stewart: No, not necessarily. I think there are days that I’m frustrated and I feel that way, but I think there are more days that I wake up and it just doesn’t bother me anymore. We’ve been through so much controversy in my whole career in the Cup series, I’m just kind of numb to it all I guess, so to speak.
It’s not a distraction to me; it’s not an aggravation to me. I’ve found a way to simplify everything and not worry about it. Controversy is controversy; it’s just something for people to read in the paper and something for them to talk about. When I’m in the race car, I mean, my job is to go out and win the race and that’s what my passion and desire is whether it’s in a midget or in a sprint car or in the Nextel Cup car. At the end of the day I still get a paycheck and still have a job that I thoroughly enjoy.
I guess I’ve come to the realization that I’ve learned what my role is here. Every other series that I was a part of, the drivers had a lot of input and the officials really worked with them. At this level, it’s done in a totally different situation. You realize it doesn’t matter what your opinion is. They don’t care about your opinion. I think that’s why this series has been as successful as it is too, because they’ve stuck to their core organizing skills. This formula they’ve had for over 50-plus years has been pretty successful. So I guess I’m not as frustrated as I used to be because I’ve realized that’s partly why it’s gotten where it has is because they’ve done it their way and not listened to everybody else who has come and gone throughout the series.
AS: Your love for sprint-car racing is well known. You own U.S. Auto Club and World of Outlaws series sprint car teams and work on - and drive - those cars whenever you can squeeze it into your schedule that’s choked with Nextel Cup commitments. And now, you’ve purchased one of the most revered dirt tracks in the United States, historic Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, from the legendary Earl Baltes, who retired. Did you do that because you want to protect the legacy of a place that is so much a part of the history in a part of racing that’s so dear to your heart?
Stewart: I think that’s why Earl and Bernice had the confidence and why Earl came to me and said he’d really like me to have that place. I think Earl knows I respect the history of the sport and the history of his speedway. I will do everything I can to take what Earl has built and not change it a lot. I don’t want to take things away to put something else in place, I just want to take what’s there and add to it. I think there’s a great foundation there, and with my popularity in NASCAR I think we can take some of that and help attract sponsors to the speedway and attract a new breed of race fans who’ve never heard or Eldora or gone to a race there. Hopefully we can take the success there and build on it.
AS: There are hundreds of race tracks around the country, many of which you’ve raced on. What makes Eldora so special?
Stewart: I have never been to a race at Eldora where people didn’t have a good time. Even if the track isn’t prepared the best as it has been or they had bad weather, everybody always found a way to have a good time. Eldora kind of allows you to let your hair down. It’s not so sponsor-driven to where you’re being force-fed from that standpoint. It’s sort of like going to the Kentucky Derby, sometimes people couldn’t tell you who won the Derby, but they can tell you how much fun they had. Eldora is like a happening. They can tell you who won the race, I can promise you that, but it’s just the atmosphere around it, an aura you don’t find at a lot of tracks across the country. It’s just a special place.