Chicagoland: Tony Stewart preview

TONY STEWART Higher Learning KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (July 6, 2010) -- It's appropriate that the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala Tony Stewart will drive in Saturday night's 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland ...

Chicagoland: Tony Stewart preview
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KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (July 6, 2010) -- It's appropriate that the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala Tony Stewart will drive in Saturday night's 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., sports a back-to-school paint scheme. After all, Stewart's been schooling the competition at Chicagoland since the series began racing at the 1.5-mile oval nine years ago.

Among the nine Sprint Cup races Chicagoland has hosted, Stewart has scored a pole, two wins, four top-threes and seven top-fives. He has only finished outside the top-five twice, and his average finish at Chicagoland is 9.6. His laps-led tally is at the head of the class too, for his 396 total laps led are 96 more than his nearest competitor in this category, Matt Kenseth. And third-best is current Sprint Cup point leader Kevin Harvick with 282 laps led, 114 fewer laps than Stewart.

That Stewart is good at Chicagoland is obvious, but that its races have always fallen on the July portion of the Sprint Cup calendar has certainly benefitted Stewart, who tends to heat up along with the weather.

The Columbus, Ind., native has the second-most wins of all Sprint Cup drivers in the months of July and August (15). Only Jeff Gordon, who has started 189 more Sprint Cup races than Stewart, has more victories in that span (18). Three of Stewart's wins have come in the July race at Daytona (2005, 2006 and 2009), where the series just visited for its annual Fourth of July event before trekking to Chicagoland, where Stewart notched wins in 2004 and 2007 and a pole in 2003.

With such a record of achievement, Stewart views Chicagoland as an AP course. Another win would give him 10 bonus points to start the Chase for the Championship, allowing the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice "Back-to-School" Chevy advanced placement among his 11 other Chase counterparts come the Chase kick-off Sept. 19 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

Solidly ensconced among the top-12 -- the cutoff number to make the 10-race Chase, which will be decided in the next eight races -- Stewart wants wins to not only bolster his advantage over 13th-place Mark Martin (currently at 120 points), but to get those valuable 10 bonus point for the start of the Chase, as each victory is worth an additional 10 points to a driver's pre-set Chase standing of 5,000 points.

On track to graduate from the regular season and into higher learning via the Chase, Stewart wants a robust transcript to place him among the Chase elite so that he can better compete for those valuable "scholarship" dollars that are awarded to the Class of 2010's valedictorian, a.k.a. the 2010 Sprint Cup champion.

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

With two wins, three top-twos, four top-threes, seven top-fives and the most laps led of any other Sprint Cup driver at Chicagoland, you have a pretty good track record. How comfortable are you at Chicagoland?

"I think I've always been good there. You look at the past and we've had some weird events. On Fridays I've had two events where I've crashed in practice. The first time Hermie Sadler blew a motor and before the caution came out I crashed in his oil and went to the hospital and I missed the rest of the day (2004). And then the very next year I blew a tire in practice and J.J. Yeley had to qualify for me (2005). It's one of those places where as long as I get through Friday, I feel like we've got a shot at it. But I don't watch the stats very much. You just take it week to week. Technology in this sport changes so fast. What was good the last time you were there doesn't mean it's going to be good the second time around. You constantly have to work. You've got to keep pushing the envelope. It's a place I like. This place is really getting racy as far as finally being able to move around and change lines and run anywhere from the bottom to the top. It's a fun track because of that."

In typical fashion, you started this season slow, but with five top-10s in the last seven races -- four of which were top-fives -- you've really picked up the pace, something that's been a trademark of yours since coming to the Sprint Cup Series in 1999. Can you point to one thing that has changed during the last couple of weeks that has bolstered your performance?

"I think it's just the work that everybody has been doing. It's kind of weird how last year we started off the season really well, literally the first half of the year was right on pace with what we were looking for, then four or five weeks before the Chase started, we started falling off and then really we were struggling during the Chase. It was kind of frustrating from that standpoint, and we couldn't really put our finger on what we were doing differently and what we were doing wrong that was causing us to not have that kind of performance. It seems like this year we got off to a slow start, but it seems like we're picking it up, so hopefully we're having the polar opposite of what we had last year. We're going to start slow and finish strong this year. It's just due to everybody's work at the shop, and there is one thing about our guys -- they just don't quit. They don't give up. They are all racers where they've come from. We've got a lot of guys that have come from Sprint Car racing or Modified racing or pavement Late Models across the country. It's neat to have a shop full of what I call $B!F(Btrue racers' -- people that race because they love racing, and we're all lucky that we get paid to do it. That's just the mentality of good racers. If things get tough, they don't give up. They sit there and sort it out and try to figure out what it is they have to do to make it better, and that's what our guys have done. They keep digging in and keep trying, and I think the results the last couple of weeks have shown that."

Since you're solidly in the top-12, does the Chase format allow for you to take chances, because being in the top-12 in points after Round 26 is all that really matters, correct?

"The first 26 races are relevant for how many wins you've got. That's the only thing that those first 26 weeks count for and that's getting you the bonus points. Other than that, as long as you're in the top-12, it doesn't matter whether you're first or 12th. As long as you're in there, that's what it takes to get you in the show. And then you need to be good from there. But it's not a life-or-death situation if you have a bad day as long as after 26 races you're in that top-12 group. We're not sending the space shuttle to outer space with this format. It's pretty easy to figure out. Twelve guys get in and they have the same amount of points and the guys that won races gets 10 extra bonus points for every race they won. It's easy to do the math. It's easy for everybody to follow."

You're carrying a back-to-school paint scheme on your Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy this week. What kind of a student were you in school?

"I wasn't the best student. I didn't get the best of grades, but it was because I didn't apply myself. From the time I was eight on, I wanted to be a racecar driver. I didn't understand how important school was at the time, so I didn't apply myself as well as I should have."

Did you have a favorite teacher?

"I didn't have one particular favorite teacher. I was very fortunate to have good teachers through elementary school, junior high and high school. There weren't very many teachers that I didn't like. Looking back, you realize that they were all important. I was very fortunate. I felt like the schools I went to were just regular public schools, but we had very good teachers there, and had teachers that had a lot of personality and taught more than just what was in the books."

Did you have a favorite subject?

"I did. I liked all of my math classes. In high school, I liked physics and geometry. Those were probably the classes I liked the best. Obviously, I didn't even realize at the time why I liked them so well, but after graduating high school and moving on, you realize how much you use all of that in racing. Those three subjects were very important and still are."

Did you play any sports, or was gym class your sport?

"I liked everything. I always enjoyed gym class. I liked baseball. I didn't get to play it at the high school level because of the amount of time we spent racing, but it was something I always wanted to do."

Were you voted anything like "Most Likely to Succeed" or was anything said about you in your high school yearbook?

"I slid under the radar. I was a pretty down-to-earth and low-key kid. I was so busy racing on the weekends that I didn't go out and do a lot of things with kids that I went to school with. My time on the weekends was spent racing. Everybody else was going to football and basketball games and I ended up going racing instead."

-source: shr

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