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Sprint Cup - TONY STEWART Atlanta Preview

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

KANNAPOLIS, Sept. 1, 2011: The phrase is part of pop culture and the episode is one of the most well-remembered in one of the most popular shows ever to air on television.

Seconds into the 159th episode of Seinfeld, which originally aired on Oct. 9, 1997, Frank Costanza (played by the legendary Jerry Stiller) screams “Serenity Now!” when arguing with his wife Estelle (played by Estelle Harris) about his lack of legroom while riding in the back of the car.

George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander), who is driving, asks his father what “Serenity Now,” means and is told by Frank that it’s a phrase he is supposed to say per the tape given to him by his doctor to help control his blood pressure. Throughout the episode the phrase “Serenity Now!” is used by nearly every character in the show whenever they encounter some obstacle or problem.

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), doesn’t have high blood pressure, nor is he attempting to fix a screen door like the Costanzas (the scene of several “Serenity Now!” references throughout the episode). That said, he might be saying “Serenity Now!” as he approaches the AdvoCare 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Stewart is in the midst of securing a spot in the Chase for the Championship as he holds onto a 10th-place point standing, which would make him eligible for the Chase. But a lot can happen between now and the conclusion of the Sept. 10 Sprint Cup race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, when the Chase field will be set. This year, the top-10 drivers in the standings following Richmond will qualify for the Chase. Spots 11 and 12 in the Chase will be occupied by drivers with the most wins this season who are between 11th and 20th in the standings.

Because Stewart doesn’t have a victory thus far in 2011, his scenarios for clinching a spot in the Chase are numerous. He could run well enough at Atlanta to clinch a spot in the Chase, but would need to come out of the race 49 points ahead of whatever driver is in 11th-place. And at this point he has a 21-point cushion over Brad Keselowski, who occupies 11th and also has three victories this season.

It would take a mathematics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) to come up with the complete list of scenarios for the No. 14 team this weekend, which is why Stewart might indeed be yelling “Serenity Now!”

Or, perhaps, “Atlanta Now!”

In 24 career Sprint Cup starts at Atlanta, Stewart has three wins (March 2002, October 2006 and September 2010), six top-threes, nine top-fives, 14 top-10s and has led a total of 966 laps around the 1.54-mile oval. His average start is 15.7, his average finish is 11.6 and he has a lap completion rate of 97.4 percent.

Stewart knows he needs a good run, and Atlanta might very well be the place to get it. Since his first victory there in March 2002, the two-time Sprint Cup champion has finished outside of the top-10 only five times.

Cliff Clavin (played by John Ratzenberger) was the famous know-it-all patron in another famous sitcom, Cheers. And Cliff would most certainly be able to point out the useless trivia that two days after the original “Serenity Now” episode aired, Tony Stewart clinched the 1997 IZOD IndyCar Series title via an 11th-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Serenity Now! Serenity Now! Serenity Now!”

TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:

Since you’re the defending race winner at Atlanta, what are your expectations as you head back to Atlanta?

“We had a car that was just dominant all night long, and you just don’t get very many nights where you’ve got a car that’s that good. So, hopefully when we go back we’re going to have that same opportunity.”

How is your confidence when you come to a racetrack where you have multiple victories and many other strong finishes?

“It always makes you feel good because know how to win there. It’s a matter of getting that feel to know what you need for the race. You always have that level of confidence knowing that you’ve been successful there in the past and you know how to do it.”

What affect does the pressure of making the Chase have on your driving with only two races remaining before the Chase field is set?

“I don’t think it has any. I mean, we still race each race to try and win. I probably have the most simplistic approach of anybody. It’s always been, if you win races, the points will take care of themselves. So, we approach each weekend with the attitude that we’re going to try and win the race. If we can’t win, we’re going to try for second, and if you can’t get second, you try for third. So, it’s a pretty simple deal. You just go out and do everything you can to try and finish as high as you can, no matter if you’re in the Chase or not.”

Which is more important – making the Chase or running well enough to win races?

“I want to make the Chase more than anything. I want it for our sponsors. I want it for our organization. But most of all, I just want us to get back on track. If that means we miss the Chase in the process, we do. But we’re going to try to do everything we can to make it. Like I say, the most important thing is getting our program back on track.”

There are two races before the Chase. You’re 10th in points. No wins thus far. Is there enough time to be a championship contender?

“I think so, if things can get turned around. Obviously, if we knew what the problem was, we would fix it. But you know it could turn around in a week, it may not turn around the rest of the year. We don’t know. But the thing is, our main goal right now is to get this program turned around and get us back on track and get us where we know we need to be and deserve to be. We’ll keep working hard toward that and we’ve got to take it one day at a time. I would love for it to be sooner rather than later, obviously. We’re not going to stop until we figure it out. We will keep working until we get it sorted out and figured out. We won’t quit on it.”

What do you expect when you come to Atlanta?

“I like racing there. It’s definitely a driver’s track. That’s why we love coming to Atlanta. I hope they never repave it. That will be the one thing that will kill it. If they have to repave it, it will be out of necessity, not because of desire from us. That’s what makes this place fun is the fact that you’re going to move around from the bottom to the top every segment of the race. You are, at some point, going to have to move around and try to find a spot to make your car better. That’s what makes it so much fun being there.”

How fine of a line is it to find a comfort level when you’re out on the racetrack at speed, particularly at Atlanta where you’re running over 200 mph?

“Well I don’t know that it’s a fine line. I mean, either you’re comfortable or you’re not. Nothing is happening this year that hasn’t happened for 100 years in racing. There’s nothing magical or mysterious going on here. Everybody is going out every week and we’re working with technology, but still at the end of the day, you’ve got a driver that’s driving the car. No matter how fast the computer says that car is going to be, if that driver is not comfortable driving it, then they’re not going to go fast. So you’ve got to tune these cars to the drivers and their feels, and that’s what makes them go fast.”

Is Atlanta the fastest track on the circuit?

“Speed-wise, it is when we qualify. In the race, it’s not. But for one lap, qualifying there is definitely a hold-your-breath lap. You’re running on a ragged edge, and your qualifying lap is your make-it-or-break-it lap. You’re always running a lot faster than you did in practice, and you just don’t know what you’re going to get out of your car. It seems like if you go just that little bit overboard, it really catches you off guard. It makes you hold your breath and grip the wheel that much tighter if you miss it.”

What are the challenges you face at Atlanta with the race beginning in the daylight and ending late at night?

“Just the balance change, really. When the track cools down at Atlanta, it gains a lot of grip. It’s a very temperature-sensitive racetrack. So, the biggest thing is just keeping your balance and keeping up with it as the track cools off. Normally, I can’t say that it changes a bunch balance-wise, it just changes a lot grip-wise. So, just having the car adjustable enough from the start of the race to the end of the race is important.”

What does it take to be successful at Atlanta?

“Just understanding what you’re going to have at the beginning of the race isn’t what you’re going to have at the end of the night. You have to be patient until it gets dark and until that temperature cools down, and once it starts settling into the nighttime hours, you can kind of get a better idea on what you’re going to have for the rest of the race.”