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 racingâs top series.
Stewart was not happy with his season, however. The Chase for the Nextel Cup format, with a champion determined by the seasonâs 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 heâs 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 donât think there were very many highlights for us, to be honest. I think we had a very terrible season. It wasnât our worst finish in the point standings, but we just really never had that pizzazz weâve had in the past in the second half of the season. We didnât have it in the first half, either. I really felt like our whole Joe Gibbs Racing organization struggled and weâve 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 wasnât due to a lack of determination and effort on our teamâs part. Everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing has dug their heels in, but we just couldnât 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, weâll be tough to beat.
AS: Have you made any major changes in the team for 2005?
Stewart: Personnel-wise, weâll be the same. Thatâs something I am really proud of. Our team has stayed intact through the whole time Iâve been there. Weâve only had a couple of changes. All weâve 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: Itâs not my job to do that. Iâm a race car driver. Itâs hard enough just trying to concentrate on doing my job each week, let alone trying to do NASCARâs job for them. I think they do a pretty good job on their own. We donât need to be promoters, we donât need to be NASCAR. Thatâs why they pay guys like Mike Helton the big money they pay him â 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. Thatâs what you have to do to win any championship. He performed well when he didnât 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 donât know. Every year is so different. Itâs 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 arenât going to change it. We couldnât if we wanted to. Itâs fair for everybody. Thereâs nothing thatâs unfair about the system. We know what it is and itâs our job to go out and do the best we can with it.
AS: Youâve had your share of disagreements with NASCAR, with fellow competitors and with members of the media over your years in the sport, and sometimes youâve 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 weâre 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 â any time in that period where anything that happens can affect how the race was run â thatâs 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 didnât know the Constitution changed. What Dale Jr. said didnât cheat anybody on the race track. It didnât have any effect on how the race was run.
Where is the process going to stop? Whatâs going to be the next thing now? If we donât 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: Letâs talk about some of the things youâve 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 donât think itâs me on the track that has given me two strikes (against me), I think itâs the way Iâve 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 didnât do anything wrong. The reason I did that was because I didnât do anything wrong.
At the same time, if I do something off the track, I know Iâve got those two strikes on me already. This is not the deal to go through as a driver. Itâs not just about driving race cars any more â thatâs the way up to this point itâs always been. Now, weâre representing multi-billion dollar companies and we have a TV package. NASCAR is very image-conscious now, which they havenât 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. Thereâs a lot more changes that go on in your life than the media could understand in one conversation. Itâs 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 âbad boyâ label hung on you?
Stewart: Look at wrestling. If you had all the popular guys, the âgoodâ guys in the sport, and you had them wrestling each other each week, Iâm 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 donât really take it personal. I donât think itâs a personal deal; itâs just a title thatâs 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 didnât 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 donât think itâs such a bad thing after all.
AS: At times youâve 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 Iâm frustrated and I feel that way, but I think there are more days that I wake up and it just doesnât bother me anymore. Weâve been through so much controversy in my whole career in the Cup series, Iâm just kind of numb to it all I guess, so to speak.
Itâs not a distraction to me; itâs not an aggravation to me. Iâve found a way to simplify everything and not worry about it. Controversy is controversy; itâs just something for people to read in the paper and something for them to talk about. When Iâm in the race car, I mean, my job is to go out and win the race and thatâs what my passion and desire is whether itâs 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 Iâve come to the realization that Iâve 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, itâs done in a totally different situation. You realize it doesnât matter what your opinion is. They donât care about your opinion. I think thatâs why this series has been as successful as it is too, because theyâve stuck to their core organizing skills. This formula theyâve had for over 50-plus years has been pretty successful. So I guess Iâm not as frustrated as I used to be because Iâve realized thatâs partly why itâs gotten where it has is because theyâve 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 thatâs choked with Nextel Cup commitments. And now, youâve 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 thatâs so dear to your heart?
Stewart: I think thatâs why Earl and Bernice had the confidence and why Earl came to me and said heâd 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 donât want to take things away to put something else in place, I just want to take whatâs there and add to it. I think thereâs 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 whoâve 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 youâve raced on. What makes Eldora so special?
Stewart: I have never been to a race at Eldora where people didnât have a good time. Even if the track isnât 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. Itâs not so sponsor-driven to where youâre being force-fed from that standpoint. Itâs sort of like going to the Kentucky Derby, sometimes people couldnât 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 itâs just the atmosphere around it, an aura you donât find at a lot of tracks across the country. Itâs just a special place.