Title Time For Tony?
February 17, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Only this time, instead of Jeff Gordon, the part of the budding superstar is being played by the young, handsome and talented Tony Stewart. If NASCAR awarded an Oscar for the most promising young driver to be headed for the Hall of Fame, Stewart would win hands down.
He and his No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac team have become that good in the span of just two years in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Gordon, eat your heart out.
In his rookie campaign in 1999, Stewart won three races and finished fourth in the Winston Cup point standings. In 2000, he avoided the sophomore jinx and finished sixth in the points with a series-high six trips to victory lane.
It took Gordon three years to win nine races and to finish in the Top 5 in the points. He won a championship in his third season in 1995.
Some predict that might be in the cards for Stewart in 2001, his third campaign in the Winston Cup Series.
"I’m not going to say Tony is going to go out and win a championship this year because he’s still got a lot to learn, but by no means is that out of the question," said team owner Joe Gibbs. "It took us six years to win a championship with Bobby (Labonte), and we methodically molded that team into championship-caliber.
"The No. 20 team and Tony have the potential to do that, and it could happen as early as this year. He’s learning a lot of what to do and not to do at times. Patience is going to be a big key with Tony in developing the consistency he needs to win a championship."
"Everything at Joe Gibbs Racing is clicking really well right now," Labonte said. "Maybe it’s because of having Tony and (crew chief) Greg (Zipadelli) so close to winning a championship as well. That team can do it, there’s no doubt about it. But then we’re not ready to give up our title reign just yet."
Labonte, Stewart’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, never finished lower than 26th and didn’t have a DNF during his title run a year ago. Stewart, on the other hand, had five DNFs in 2000 and finished 26th or lower six times.
Because of his sometimes too aggressive driving style, Stewart has yet to become a mirror image of Labonte. Stewart said he’s continually learning from the 2000 Winston Cup champion, and wants desperately to develop the consistency Labonte and his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac team has achieved.
That’s why this season Stewart has vowed to be a bit more patient on the track and to not force situations that could potentially produce trouble.
"You look at what Bobby and that team have done, and you definitely want to model yourselves after them," Stewart said. "What they did last year was phenomenal, and that’s the way you win championships.
"I like to take matters into my own hands a lot of times, and that’s gotten me in trouble. If I want to win races and win a championship, I’ve got to show a little bit more restraint out there in certain situations. I want to win races, but I also want to win a championship, and that’s how we’re going to do it."
Stewart and Zipadelli have become the toast of the town these days. Mostly unheard of in NASCAR circles before he came to work for Joe Gibbs Racing, Zipadelli has become one of the more respected crew chiefs in the Winston Cup garage area.
Zipadelli, in return, has developed a growing respect for Stewart, and the two have worked together to come up with a championship plan for 2001.
"Our consistency is what has hurt us over the past couple of years," Zipadelli said. "It seemed like we didn’t have many boring days last year. We were always battling back from something. I think that shows the strength of our team, which is a very positive thing to have.
"Tony is continually evolving to the point where he needs to be as far as his intelligence on the track. He knows what it takes to win, and now he’s striving to gain the knowledge of what it takes to win a championship. For example, if you were to go back and look up how many times we were one or two laps down and then wound up finishing in the Top 5, it would be impressive. Those are the things that are going to make us a championship contender."
Stewart and the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac team have already impressed at Daytona this week coming from behind on the final lap to pass Dale Earnhardt and earn his first career Budweiser Shootout victory Sunday. He got caught up in an accident with Elliott Sadler in his Gatorade 125-mile qualifying race Thursday, but recovered amicably and went on to finish 11th.
Stewart will start Sunday’s Daytona 500, a race many people predict he’ll win in just his third attempt, from the 24th position. It took Gordon five tries to win his first Daytona 500 (1997), and he followed that up with another triumph in the Great American Race in 1999.
"The way we’ve performed so far this week is a big step for this Home Depot Racing team," Zipadelli said. "We’ve qualified well at restrictor plate tracks and we’ve raced okay, but those races (the Shootout and the 125) were a big step because the car we had in the Shootout was probably the best balanced car we had, and Tony did his best behind the wheel.
"Every time he goes out on the track he learns something. I’m proud of Tony and I’m proud of those guys for handling the highs and lows of this week so well. But come Sunday, we’re hoping we can carry everything we did in the Shootout into the 500."
Winning the 500, however, would be just the first step along the way to the Promised Land – A Winston Cup championship – for Stewart and the Home Depot team.