Countdown To New York: No 6

Sophomore jinx? The phrase is laughable when thinking about Tony Stewart.

Not only did the 1999 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year not falter during his second season in NASCAR’s elite division, he emerged as the series’ top young superstar, doubling his victory total of a year ago and serving notice as a championship contender in the not-so-distant future.

Indeed, the immediate future is a bright one for Joe Gibbs Racing. Not only did Gibbs earn his first Winston Cup title with Bobby Labonte in 2000, but Stewart’s prowess has also helped turned the organization into the best multicar operation in the business.

Stewart earned six victories in 2000 – the most of any driver in the series – and wound up finishing sixth in the Winston Cup points standings, a mere five points behind Ricky Rudd.

“We’ve been looking for Bobby to finally realize his championship potential, and it’s happened, but what a driver Tony Stewart has turned out to be,” Gibbs says. “What a team we’ve got with this Home Depot bunch. Tony, (crew chief) Greg (Zipadelli) and the rest those guys have gotten it all together and become what we’ve hoped they would be to this point.

“They can do nothing but get better and better in the next couple of years. Next year we’d like to see Tony and Bobby battling for the championship. What a deal that would be.”

High praise from a man who knows what championships are all about. Gibbs won three Super Bowls as the head coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

Stewart says his rapid success in the Winston Cup Series has overwhelmed him somewhat.

“I didn’t think all of this would happen this quickly,” the former open-wheel standout says. “I was going to be happy just being a part of Winston Cup racing. To win nine races in two years, and to be able to do what we’ve done in such a short period of time – I’m very excited about what the future holds for me.

“I feel like I’ve hit the lottery with this Home Depot team. Not many people in this garage area have had the opportunity that we’ve had.”

Perhaps not even Jeff Gordon, who won only two races in his first two years in Winston Cup. In fact, Stewart’s two-year victory total matches Gordon’s total in his first three seasons at NASCAR’s highest level.

The season wasn’t all peaches and cream for Stewart, though. The No. 20 Pontiac team endured an inconsistent streak during the spring that left it out of the Top 10 in the Winston Cup points standings as late as the first week of May.

“That’s the way of this series,” Stewart says. “(Winston Cup Director) Gary Nelson told us in our rookie season last year, ‘You can expect seven or eight bad races a year. That’s about average.’ That doesn’t mean you crash out or DNF, but just a bad race compared to what you would run on a normal basis.

“We had four DNFs this year, and Bobby (Labonte) and Dale Earnhardt didn’t have any. There are just so many things each weekend that we can control. As soon as the race starts, there are 42 other variables that we can’t control.

“The biggest thing is we have to go out there this winter like we did last year and do the best we can as a race team to be prepared and to control as many things that are in our control. Then, we have to let lady luck take care of some of it. Preparation is a big part of that.”

Stewart’s fortunes began to change in June when he won the MBNA Platinum 400 at Dover Downs International Speedway, his first victory of the season. He didn’t have to wait too long for victory No. 2, as that came the very next week in the Kmart 400 at Michigan Speedway.

After Top 10s in each of his next three races, he won again at New Hampshire, but it wasn’t until more than two months later that he would see victory lane again. That came again at Dover, where he completed a season sweep in the 400.

He then earned a hard-fought victory the following week at Martinsville, and capped off a tremendous campaign with a triumph in the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the same track at which Labonte was able to wrap up his first Winston Cup title.

“That was great,” Stewart says. “I kind of forgot that I was winning the race for a while, worrying about where Bobby was. I’m thankful to Bobby for letting me share a lap with him and to run side by side after the race. It meant a lot to me.”

Those roles could be reversed next season, when Stewart will be touted as a strong contender for the Winston Cup title.

“What we have to do for next year is not have any DNFs,” Zipadelli says. “We had four this year. In every one of those races we were running in the Top 5 before we had trouble, so if we could have those back, we’d have been a threat this year.

“Our goal for next season is to win as many races as we can and to obviously finish as high as we can in the points and contend for a championship. Next year, maybe we will be able to do that. Next year at this time, maybe we’ll be sitting here again saying that we still need to mature and grow in certain areas.

“As long as we’re winning races and we’re competitive week-in and week-out, then it’s easier to look and grow and be excited about things."

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