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TONY STEWART - SoCal Sojourn

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KANNAPOLIS, Oct. 7, 2010:It was said before the season started. Repeated as the year wore on. And now it’s being emphasized. Intermediate tracks – the bread-and-butter of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – are aplenty in the Chase for the Championship, and it’s where championships can either be won or lost.

After visiting the relatively quirky, 1-mile confines of New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and Dover (Del.) International Speedway in rounds one and two, respectively, of the 10-race Chase, last Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City marked the first of five intermediate tracks the Sprint Cup Series will visit en route to the series championship.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing, led four times for a race-high 76 laps around the 1.5-mile Kansas oval before finishing fourth. The result allowed Stewart to whittle 35 points off the deficit between him and Chase leader Jimmie Johnson.

Now, the series rolls into Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The 2-mile, D-shaped oval situated an hour east of Los Angeles is home to round four of the Chase, and Stewart plans to build on the strong run scored at the similarly structured Kansas oval. Steady and unspectacular, Stewart has logged four top-fives and 10 top-10s in 18 career Sprint Cup starts at Fontana, while leading a total of 234 laps. It remains one of only three venues the Sprint Cup Series visits where Stewart is winless in Sprint Cup, the others being Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

But consistency is what has traditionally won championships, and Stewart has proven that he can run up front at Fontana and at the other intermediate tracks remaining on this year’s schedule.

The 1.5-mile Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway follows Fontana, with sister track Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth serving as the third to last race of the year before the season finale at yet one more 1.5-mile oval – Homestead-Miami Speedway. At those three tracks, Stewart has four Sprint Cup wins – five if you include the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte, which Stewart won in May 2009.

Currently 10th in the Chase standings, 127 points out of first, Stewart can throw conservatism out the window and go for broke. Already a two-time Sprint Cup champion – one scored under the old season-long format in 2002 and the other in the sophomore year of the Chase in 2005 – Stewart knows what it takes to win a title. Add in his four USAC championships and 1997 IndyCar Series title and it’s obvious that Stewart has a penchant for staying in the hunt and then pouncing when opportunities present themselves.

Fontana provides yet another opportunity to do just that, and perhaps check the track off his to-do list by scoring his 39th career Sprint Cup victory.

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:

A lot of your fellow drivers have said that this slate of races at the intermediate tracks will set the tone for the remainder of the Chase. Do you agree with that?

“I think so. I mean, there are more mile-and-a-half tracks in the Chase than there is anything else. It’s definitely a situation where these couple of weeks will give everybody an idea of where they are and what they have to do.”

What is your current mindset with where you are in the Chase standings?

“We have nothing to lose and everything to gain, really. It’s a situation where I wish we could say that we’re right in the middle of this and had to worry about everything, but in the first two weeks, we dug ourselves a pretty big hole. We literally have a go-for-broke attitude. We don’t have anything to lose right now. Tenth doesn’t mean anything to me in the point standings. I’m going for everything I can get right now.”

Do you feel you have a better team than what your overall Chase results have shown?

“Definitely, we’re a better team. Kansas was proof of that. But still, those first two weeks are what they are. We can’t change it. We can’t fix it. We can’t go back and redo it. It’s a tough situation to be in where we got behind in two weeks. We have seven more weeks to get everything we can get out of them.”

In your role as driver/owner at Stewart-Haas Racing, you’ve had to serve as a cheerleader to keep pulling in the same direction. Can you still win this Chase?

“Yeah, we’re not out until we’re mathematically out. Who would’ve dreamed we would have two weeks in a row like we had the first two weeks, so it’s proof it can happen. Talladega is still on the schedule (laughs), so that can jumble everything up, too. So, we’ve just got to go out and try to win each race, and if we can’t win, take what it gives us.”

How different is the feel of the racetrack from when you were at Fontana in February to now?

“It has a lot more grip in the spring because it’s cooler. Now that it’s hotter, it’s a good bet that the track’s going to be slick on race day, which is good. That’s why the groove will widen out and that’s why guys can move around on the racetrack the way they can.”

It’s been proposed that reconfiguring Auto Club Speedway would produce more exciting racing. What do you think?

“They need to let the racetrack be. You can change all the banking you want. It’s still a 2-mile track. The good thing is that the racing has become two- and three-wide and you can run on different spots on the racetrack. But that’s all you can hope for. It is what it is there. If they wanted to do something, they should’ve been a little smarter and built a half-mile or three-quarter mile oval. But anytime you build something that big, you’re going to spread cars out.”

Fontana is a track where a driver can search for different grooves, as opposed to some other tracks on the circuit where there is really only one true groove. As a driver, do you appreciate that more?

“It’s nice knowing that as a driver you can help yourself out and you’re not relying so much on the car. Regardless of what everyone else is doing, you can find a way to help yourself out. It makes you feel good knowing that because the place is so wide, you can move around, and basically, earn your money that day.”

At what point do you start to move around on the racetrack to find a better handle for your racecar?

“As soon as you feel like you’re not where you need to be. If you feel like you’re slower than the pace you need to be running, you’re going to move up the racetrack and find a place that helps balance your racecar. Really, from the drop of the green flag, you do it from there on out.”

Why is it that races at D-shaped ovals seem to be won in fairly dominating fashion?

“If a guy gets going and gets his car balanced, then he’ll tend to run away. That’s just the characteristic of that kind of track. It’s fast, it’s flat and momentum is so important there, that if a guy is off just a little, he’s off a lot. The drivers like it from the standpoint that if you can find a way to get around it a little better, then it’ll help them in the long run. You end up racing the racetrack instead of each other.”

Track position and pit strategy seem to be the two biggest variables at Fontana. When and how do you make the decision to sacrifice tires for track position, or depending on the circumstances, track position for tires?

“I think it just depends on how your car is working. If your car is driving well, one that keeps you up toward the front all day because it’s fast, then just two tires can keep you pretty quick. In that situation, you could make a big gain at the end by just taking on two tires and maintaining your track position. Even some guys who are behind and don’t have their car the way they want, by taking on two tires, the track position they gain helps out more than four tires would. But when you get right down to it, I think Fontana is a track where if your car’s good, then it doesn’t matter whether you take two tires or four.”