Counting On A Rebound

The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at California Speedway was supposed to be the first true test of the reduced rear spoiler height and the softer Goodyear tires that all teams must employ on their fleet of race cars in 2005. Some found success while others found frustration.

Count the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team in the camp of the latter. Driver Tony Stewart piloted an ill-handling race car throughout the 250-lap race at the 2-mile California oval, never advancing higher than 15th. His eventual 17th place finish required more effort than did many of his 19 career NEXTEL Cup victories.

So is the No. 20 team behind the curve? Did they miss something in preparation for the 2005 season? As ESPN College GameDay's Lee Corso might say, "Not so fast my friend!"

California, for whatever reason, has been an enigma to Stewart and Co. Since scoring three straight top-10 finishes in their first three races at California, the No. 20 team has not finished better than 16th in their five subsequent visits. But Las Vegas Motor Speedway - next up on the NEXTEL Cup docket with the March 13 UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 - wears the white hat to California's black hat.

While the No. 20 team has struggled at California, they've excelled at Vegas. The two tracks have similar layouts, as both are D-shaped ovals with sweeping corners capable of handling two- and three-wide racing. But Las Vegas is a half-mile shorter than California at 1.5-miles in length, and it seems to make all the difference.

Since finishing second at the 2000 Las Vegas race, Stewart has finished no worse than 12th. And in his three most recent visits to the desert oval, he's logged three straight top-five finishes and led a total of 121 laps out of an available 801 laps (15 percent).

It appears that the team's struggles at California are isolated to California, for the team's performance at Las Vegas has remained strong, even in the face of previous rule changes. Last year teams entered Las Vegas with rules changes similar to this year's - a smaller rear spoiler and a softer Goodyear tire, just not as pronounced as the changes mandated for 2005 - and still Stewart was able to lead four times for 45 laps before coming away with a solid third-place finish.

With an off-weekend to regroup and Las Vegas' friendly history beckoning, the No. 20 Home Depot Racing Team is primed for a rebound.

"The corners are tighter," Stewart said of Las Vegas in comparison to California. "It's tighter coming off turn four and tighter going into turn one than it is at California. That's why the handling is so important there. Because the corners are tighter, it makes it really important that The Home Depot Chevrolet rolls through there free - not tight or loose. It's a real important track in terms of balance."

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