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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
April 18, 2006
DENISE MALOOF: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series teleconference. A little bit of housekeeping as we always do. The Nextel Wake-Up Call begins at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at the Phoenix International Raceway infield media center. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., is the guest.
Today we're joined by Tony Stewart, who is the reigning NASCAR champion. He has raced in six different series at Phoenix. He'll be with us till about 12:30 eastern time, then his crew chief Greg Zipadelli will join us.
Tony currently is fifth in the standings, 97 points behind the leader, Jimmie Johnson. He's on a roll. He has had three top (indiscernible) in the last four races.
Tony, can we count Phoenix among your favorite venues?
TONY STEWART: Yeah, it is. I've been there a long, long time with USAC and the Copper Classic, then when I switched to the Busch Series and Indy Racing League. I didn't get a chance to run there in Busch, but was there quite a bit in the IRL. I got to be really close friends with Dennis Wood, who was part of the track out there, Buddy, who owned the facility before NASCAR bought it. It was kind of really considered and still is considered my West Coast home away from home.
It's a track that I've really enjoyed, spent a lot of time out there and love the area. Very, very excited about going back out there this weekend.
DENISE MALOOF: What about that track is the most enjoyable thing as far as the actual layout that you enjoy?
TONY STEWART: I'll be honest, I liked it in its old configuration. I liked having the Goodyear bridge that used to go over the top of the track, really used to like the way you used to come off of turn two, used to be really tight off of turn two before it got changed.
It's still a unique track. Turns one and two are a tighter radius than turns three and four are, and having the two ends different like that are what give the Phoenix track its own personality.
DENISE MALOOF: Thank you. Let's take some questions for you.
Q. In your view, some of the things that have happened already among the drivers and their friends, is it possible a situation like that could even get nastier and lead to some ugly confrontations as the series goes along? Do you think maybe family and friends should be barred from the pit areas?
TONY STEWART: From the pit areas?
TONY STEWART: I don't know. I mean, yeah, we always have friends and we have guests. A perfect example is Bob Nardelli, on top of the pit box at Martinsville. We don't really look -- even though he's the CEO of Home Depot, we look at him more as a friend than we do a business partner. His presence there, he's as excited about the race team as we are.
I think especially considering the situation with the amount of money that Home Depot puts in there, if he wanted to stand on the pit box, he should be allowed to stand on the pit box. He enjoys it. We give him a radio. He's not just there watching. He hears everything, all the conversation that goes on.
As far as the rest of it, I don't know. I really don't have an opinion on it, to be honest.
Q. I wanted to ask a little bit the obvious question about Talladega. What is your opinion of the change in the bumpers, what it might or might not do for the plate racing?
TONY STEWART: I give NASCAR 1000% credit for being proactive. Hopefully it's the right thing. I mean, it's something we discussed when we were in there with our discussion with them in February. You know, if it's something that makes the racing better for everybody and keeps everybody out of that situation, then it's done its job.
At least NASCAR is trying something for this event. We'll see how it works out.
Q. Has etiquette kind of disappeared on the track, and become every man for himself out there, more so than in years past? Is there still etiquette on the track?
TONY STEWART: There is; there's not as many people exercising it. I think the veterans and the guys that are used to winning a lot of races are still using that. There's a lot of young drivers in the series that don't have that respect for the series and for the veterans of the series.
Having respect for them doesn't mean you have to lay over and give them the wins, this and that. That's not what I mean. Realizing that a 500-mile race is a 500-mile race, not a 200-mile race like a Truck or Busch race, there's a difference in how we race in Cup versus how those guys race when they came through the Busch and Truck Series. I think those guys need to learn how we race. For them to think they're going to come in and change how we race is ludicrous.
Q. A couple Talladega questions. You've always run so well at Talladega, yet you've never won. Does that bother you?
TONY STEWART: No, not at all. I mean, Talladega is a track that you can't do anything on your own there. You have to strictly rely on of what everybody else around you is doing.
We haven't won there. Look at how many second-place finishes we've had. I think our finishing average is pretty high, higher than most for the amount of races that we've ran there. I'm pretty satisfied with the way we've run there.
Q. Tell me about your dog you bring to all the races.
TONY STEWART: Actually, I just had to throw her off of me to get to where I could get a better signal here. She's a six-pound Chihuahua. Everybody kind of laughs. Their first impression is, wow, this tough guy has a Chihuahua. It's not really -- doesn't make it very easy to bring a 150-pound dog in a 45-foot bus all weekend.
Having a little dog with us that's used to traveling, she's kind of been our good luck charm from day one. The races that we don't take her to are normally races we struggle. We kind of look at her as a piece of the puzzle, of the luck.
I think just about everybody in the series, I mean, if you look, I would say well over 90% of the drivers in the bus lot area have some sort of pet with them on the weekend. It's nice to have a companion with you on the weekends. It's just something that kind of brings home a little closer to us when we're on the road all week.
Q. Your championship run didn't pick up speed until Infineon last season. You're in better shape heading into Phoenix this year. Are you feeling more confident at this point in the season than last year?
TONY STEWART: I mean, obviously, yeah, I mean, we're in a lot better shape than we were last year at this time. You still have -- at the end of the day, you still have to take it one week at a time right now. I wish I could say, yeah, I'm real excited about the opportunity and possibility of winning another championship this year.
I mean, this business is strictly a week-to-week business. What you did last week may or may not work this week. The main reason for that is technology. I mean, every week people are working to get their programs better than what they were the week before. If some organization hits on something, you could be a top five car and all of a sudden now just a top 10 car, outside the top five.
You know, I'm happy with where we're at. I'm glad we've got such a great start to the season and hope we can maintain that. Our team is working hard towards that obviously. There's still -- in this business, there's never any guarantees that what you're doing now is going to get you to the Chase, nor is it going to -- nor is there a guarantee it's going to win you a championship.
Q. Temperatures are supposed to hit about 90 by Friday. Do you prefer PIR a little hot and slippery?
TONY STEWART: Absolutely. I mean, that's when I do the best there, seems like. No matter what type of car it is, when it gets slick, I seem to do better there. I'm hoping that -- I'm hoping it gets 120, as long as it doesn't feel like that in the car.
Q. Looking ahead, big news last week was announced that for the All-Star race, it's going to be a little bit of a rock concert as well as the race. As a driver, how do you feel about that? Also as a track owner, how do you feel turning a race into a race and rock concert?
TONY STEWART: Keep in mind, racing is an entertainment business. We are entertaining hundreds of thousands of fans. If it makes the experience for those people that come to the race -- if it makes them happier, it adds to that experience, it's a positive thing.
Trust me, there's a lot of -- I don't really know what's going on that weekend, so I'm not going to act like I know exactly what's going on.
Q. It's the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing between the two segments.
TONY STEWART: Okay, you know, there's a lot of rock artists that are big NASCAR fans; a lot of race fans like rock'n roll music. If it's something that adds to the show, makes it a more pleasant experience for those people, obviously Humpy Wheeler has been a pioneer in being a promotor. He normally makes pretty good decisions.
Like I say, the fans are going to be the ones to tell you whether it's a positive or negative thing. That's why they do it. They do it strictly for the fans. If it makes it a better experience for them, that's a great thing.
Q. The media was polled last month regarding the all-time greatest crew chiefs in NASCAR history. I have a feeling 10 weeks from now if they would take that poll again, Greg's name would be up there. Could you comment on him, what has made this relationship so successful and what makes him such a great crew chief.
TONY STEWART: The thing that makes him such a good great crew chief, he's so dedicated to the program. He lives, eats, breathes, sleeps this race team. There's sometimes I feel like he neglects his family because of it.
He's a great person. I mean, what makes him such a great crew chief is the fact that - I'm not going to speak for his wife, but I think I can answer for her in that saying he's a great husband. I've seen him, he's an excellent father. I hit the lottery getting him as a crew chief. He's the reason we've been so successful together as a team is because we both have the same passion and desire to win.
His work ethic is unbelievable. He cares about people. He learned a lot from Joe Gibbs. He treats -- you're only as good as your weakest person. We're always striving to make ourselves better than what we are, but at the same time he treats everybody as an individual.
I could sit here for two hours and talk about him. But he's just a great person. I mean, he's one of those people that when times get tough, he's in the shop 14, 16 hours a day till we get out of the rut that we're in. That's how dedicated he is to our program.
When you put two guys together like Greg and myself that have the same desire to win and same passion to win, it's hard to beat a combination like that normally.
Q. Gibbs Racing, have you seen it elevate as a whole this year?
TONY STEWART: What was the beginning of it?
Q. Gibbs Racing, have you seen the whole team elevate this year?
TONY STEWART: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it's just amazing sometimes. I miss Bobby as a teammate. Bobby was a huge, huge, huge leader in our organization the whole time I was there.
You know, it just shows a lot of times chemistry-wise it's amazing what happens when you change the chemistry a little bit. Having two young guys come in that have fresh ideas, that have fresh attitudes, see what we've been able to do so far this year, how well we work together, it's really an exciting time for us at the shop.
I feel like we've really taken our program to another level. It's not been because of me; it's been because of the two young guys coming in, the attitude -- their attitude has kind of spread through the shop. It's really just kind of given everybody a new fresh attitude and approach to what we're doing this year.
Q. You have one more off weekend before the end of the season, that being at the end of July. What is your opinion on how the off weekends are spaced? Would you like another one further into the Chase?
TONY STEWART: We ran Daytona, and I think we went straight to California, then had a weekend off. I'm not sure that we needed a weekend off after two races. I would like to see that weekend, that off weekend, be moved down later in the year, maybe the weekend before the Chase starts even, to where it gives everybody a chance to kind of catch their breath.
We get a lot of breaks early in the season here. At the time of the year when everybody is really getting run down and are tired and need a break, we don't get anything.
You know, it's hard for NASCAR. I mean, obviously, there's traditional dates, this and that, that you can't move around. It's a delicate balance for them. But if there was any way possible to take, you know, maybe the first weekend off that we had and move it later on in the season there, I think it would definitely benefit the drivers and the teams and the owners.
Q. Ford won the last race at Talladega, ran well at Talladega. Have they closed the gap some?
TONY STEWART: I don't know. It's such a chess match there anyway. You can be leading the race one second, and you can be fifth the next second. I think it's just a matter of timing and getting yourself in the right place at the right time.
I don't know if they have or not, to be honest. It's just a matter of -- I think a lot of that is just the luck of where you're at and whether you're in the right place at the right time.
Q. What is your dog's name?
TONY STEWART: Kayle.
Q. You talked about the changes earlier with the Phoenix racetrack. Overall, do you like the changes? Does it suit you better? Would you rather go back to the old way, if you could?
TONY STEWART: Honestly, I liked it the way it was. It was just really unique the way it was. Having bridges going over the top of racetracks, it was a walkway bridge is what it was. But I remember going to Winchester, Indiana, they had a walkway bridge that went over, because they didn't have a tunnel that went underneath the racetrack. It's things like that that kind of take the past of our sport.
Obviously, you want to update facilities all the time to bring them into current standards. But that was just one more thing. That was the last track in the Cup Series that had something nostalgic like that. I hated to see that go. Just the way turn two was, it really made -- it was very challenging getting off of turn two. I liked it that way. In every division I ran there, it made it a lot more fun.
I don't know that it doesn't suit my style. I mean, I had a great run there in the fall. I think the racing is still good there no matter how they do it. I'm still old school in a lot of ways. Like I said, I spent a lot of time at Phoenix. When some of those changes came, I wasn't necessarily a big fan of it.
Q. When you go back to a racetrack that you've raced at so many times, even back early in your career in IRL, when you sit there alone in your thoughts looking at that racetrack, does it juice you up with confidence?
TONY STEWART: Sure. Any time you go back to a facility that you've had success at, you're always excited to go back there. It's not only just the performance that we've had there isn't the total draw for me enjoying Phoenix so much. We had a chance to go to Manzanita, Dennis Wood's dirt track. In the fall there, my Sprint cars are out there. I get a chance in the evenings to go watch my own cars race as well as do what I do at the Cup track. The friends I've made along the way, the (indiscernible) family, all the people that I've got to know out there at the facility, those are people that I look forward to seeing when I go out there.
It's just kind of the total package when I go out there. It's a great facility. Obviously, I mean, there's not too many tracks you go to that you look over the backstretch and you see mountains and cactus everywhere, you hear people talking about cowboys going up there in the morning with a bag and grabbing rattlesnakes the day of the race to clear them out so people can sit down. It's just a pretty special racetrack.
Q. You touched earlier about how it's been easy to replace Bobby sort of this year. How hard has it been for you to be doing so good and see him struggle?
TONY STEWART: It's always hard, especially with the attitude we have. We have the attitude as a team that we all want to run well and we want our whole organization to run well. That's kind of what hurt us last year is that Bobby's team kind of got in a rut. When we were running well, he was in a rut, we couldn't really rely on him for help. That's what makes it hard.
You have a weekend like we had at Texas where all three cars were competitive and all three guys were fast, it made the information that we shared with each other even that much more valuable. It makes that side of it exciting.
Like I said, I miss Bobby as a teammate. He was the one that got me my ride at Joe Gibbs Racing in the first place. With the success we're having here, it's a great position to be in right now, having three cars that are running well. With two rookies, you can't expect them to go out there and have the success right away that we've had and we're having. To see the runs they've had this year, see the experience they're gaining, that in itself is as good and valuable as some wins are.
Q. You said a while ago that you consider yourself a bit old school. You talked about being nostalgic about the bridge, things like that. Do you talk to the guys about the supposed good old days? Is there a side of you that kind of wishes maybe you came around three decades earlier?
TONY STEWART: I don't know if three decades would be accurate. Maybe two. Three may have been a bit far for me. This past weekend, I went and raced the late dirt model two nights, and I didn't fly to the tracks and get out, I rode in the truck with the team. We rode in a motorhome together. The whole entire race team was -- we were all sitting there working together, riding together. We were telling stories about races five or six years ago.
Yeah, it makes you appreciate those times. I mean, a lot's changed in racing, not necessarily all of them are for the better. They all have happened for a reason.
With that, it's fun to remember those times. I may not have been in the era with AJ and those guys that I respect the most, but still I still have a lot of good stories and a lot of good things to talk about with friends.
Q. Looking ahead with May just around the corner, do you still have those urges to get into an IndyCar again? Do you miss the 500? Do you think that we'll ever see you in an IndyCar again?
TONY STEWART: Wow, it's amazing, this topic comes up every year at this time. The answer is always the same. You can almost look at everybody's notes from last year and get the same thing that I'm going to give you right now.
Yes, I miss being in an IndyCar. Trust me, I'll be at the Speedway during the month of May when I have days off just hanging out and having fun seeing people that I used to race with there.
I don't know. I mean, with my age now, the earliest that I could be back in an IndyCar would be 2010. I'll be almost 40 years old by then.
Q. Michael Andretti is 42 and he's doing it.
TONY STEWART: Yeah, but he's around it every week. It's hard when you're not around that to go every week to get caught up. I don't know. Every year that goes by, it just seems like that's a part of my career that is kind of like a chapter in a book that seems like it's closed and we've moved on to another chapter.
I don't know. I would honestly say I doubt you'll ever see me in an IndyCar again. I've learned to never say never also.
Q. Last year I believe is the first time the series ran two races at Phoenix. How different was the spring race to the fall event?
TONY STEWART: The spring race was the first time we ever raced at night. That in itself was pretty exciting. It was a neat perspective to see that track at night. The fall race was a little more -- we started a little later in the day. It was just a late afternoon race. The track conditions were a lot slipperier when we started the race in the fall.
Hopefully, like we said, like was mentioned earlier, hopefully the weather is very warm this weekend and that will give us an opportunity to get the track nice and warm to where it gets a little slipperier and the guys get to move around more.
Q. How much are you looking forward to the IROC and road race?
TONY STEWART: I'm really looking forward to that. That's something I haven't had the pleasure of doing yet in the IROC Series, is running the road course race. Very excited about that. It's a track that I'm obviously familiar with, running the 24 hours. I'm looking forward to it. It ought to be a very neat race. I think it's a great opportunity for the IndyCar drivers and the road racers to shine and show their level of talent. Where we always have an advantage as Cup drivers on the oval tracks, this is an opportunity for them to be the favorite, so to speak, show us their side of the sport. Hopefully those guys will have an opportunity to shine and redeem themselves from some of the oval races.
Q. Do you think that champions have common traits and abilities? If so, what are they?
TONY STEWART: I don't know. To be honest, I mean, you look at some of the other champions, we all have a desire to win or we wouldn't be champions. If you don't have that desire, you just won't be successful. I don't care how good you are, you have to have that feeling in your gut that you want to win every week when you go out there.
I don't know. I mean, I think there's similarities and I think there's differences. That's just people in general. I'm not necessarily sure exactly what all those common traits are other than the fact that you want to be competitive and you want to win every race that you run.
DENISE MALOOF: Tony, I think that does it for you today. We appreciate you joining us. Thanks for making time for us today and good luck this weekend.
TONY STEWART: No problem. Don't let them beat up my crew chief too bad.
DENISE MALOOF: We'll speak to him soon. But thank you and we will speak with you again.
TONY STEWART: All right, guys, thanks.
DENISE MALOOF: Greg Zipadelli, Tony Stewart's crew chief, has joined us, made a few moments for us today. He and Tony have been together since 1999. They have won two NASCAR Nextel Cup Series titles together and are positioning themselves perhaps for a third this season.
Greg, it's April and you guys look like you're already in mid-season form. That's a bit different for you, isn't it?
GREG ZIPADELLI: A little bit. I mean, we finished a little better than we have in the past. Last year, I think if you look, we ran well at a lot of races earlier. We just made some mistakes, some things were costly to us. We didn't win as early as we should have last year. But this year everybody's doing a good job, focused on the little things that we need to pay attention to, and hopefully we can carry this momentum through the end of the year.
DENISE MALOOF: Tony makes no secret of the fact that he really enjoys Phoenix International Raceway. I assume it's one of your favorite tracks, too?
GREG ZIPADELLI: It is. It's a cool place. It's pretty unique. That racetrack is different. Both ends are so different. You know, if you're good, you can race and you can pass there.
DENISE MALOOF: We'll take some questions for you.
Q. Looking ahead a week, but because of what NASCAR has been doing, what is your evaluation of the changing of the bumpers for the plate races? Do you think it will have significant effect? Also some people expressed concern those bumpers might be able to be cheated up anyway. What is your overall evaluation, whether they'll work or not?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I think it's not going to solve the problem, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. I think if NASCAR inspects them like they do everything else, then I don't know how much cheating up there will be. You know what I mean? I think it's a fairly cut-and-dry, black-and-white area. They regulated how many braces you can have, the thickness of the tubing that you can have.
I think it's definitely a step in the right direction to make the bump-drafting minimal. What's going to happen is these cars, these noses are so sensitive, the air inlet and that radius, if you damage that, your car's going to run hot. The way the noses are mounted on these cars, they're so high, the cooling, it's a really hard thing to get mastered anyways. If you hurt that radius, you're going to just make yourself a real long day.
I think everybody's going to have to be aware of that, and hopefully it will help the situation.
Q. Do you think there will come a point late in the race, two or three laps to go, that drivers just won't consider the overheating aspect of it and use that front bumper anyway?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I don't know. I mean, I guess we'll find that out here shortly. The end race is the end of race; everybody's going to do what they got to do.
I think a lot of it just goes back to having respect for each other, racing people like you want to be raced. You know, it's restrictor plate racing. It's just part of the environment. But it's tough to ask a driver to go out there and do that for so long, when other people can dictate what you can do. It's just so different than going to California and Texas and working on your car. You need other people to do things to make your moves, and you need help.
I think hopefully the message was -- you know, everybody kind of received the message and everybody will be a little more respectful and hopefully this won't be a topic in the future.
Q. Is there something that NASCAR could look at more or less or do away with in the inspection process? I guess along the same lines, again, just how difficult is it to cheat or sneak something by with as thorough as the process is now?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I mean, they're pretty thorough. I think it just depends on what areas you're talking about. But I think, you know, the severity of the fines that they've been handing out hopefully deter most people from looking and working in that area.
I know one thing, I don't want to sit home for a couple weeks. I think it's quite embarrassing and it's costly to your race team. You make a commitment to come here and work for your sponsors, the guys, the other people back at the shop. You know, I know what goes on. It's not encouraged around here, nor do I agree with it.
Q. Growing up, did you have any heroes in racing, anybody you admired, whether it was a crew chief, mechanic, driver, that you really looked up to and wanted to mould your career after?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I don't know. There's always obviously people that you looked up to racing. I mean, Jim Makar was one as a crew chief, seeing how he had gone to different teams and had success with different people. Dale Earnhardt obviously was a huge hero of mine and probably most of everybody else's.
I don't know. I'm not really, in all honesty, that big on that. I always just kind of worked on my stuff, whatever I was doing at the time, was just wrapped up in that.
Q. Have you noticed any difference on the 48 team since Knaus came back? Was his absence and return completely a non-event as far as you were concerned as a competitor?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I mean, again, I've not focused or looked at it to say, you know, how it affected him or didn't. It's not really -- it doesn't matter to me. You know, it doesn't matter who's over there, Chad or anybody else. We go out to try and beat the 48 and the other 41 race cars that we're competing against any given week. It doesn't really matter who's there or not.
I'm sure it puts a little drama to their team, some stress on other people. From the outside looking in, they all handled it well and did a good job.
Q. You have the highest average running position during a race this year. Is that more of a testament to the way Tony is driving or the way the guys are performing in the pits and the shop?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I think it's a combination of everything. Tony has been on since Daytona. He's been like a machine. He's been fun. He's really intense about his race car, giving good feedback. I think it goes back to the guys at the shop being able to build good race cars week in and week out. We've had a lot of new race cars and they've all performed pretty good.
I'm proud of everybody. It's truly become a team effort. I know we have if not the best, one of the best drivers in the sport right now, or maybe ever to be here. But if we can't give him what he wants, what he needs, none of us are going to do very well.
NASCAR has done such a good job of keeping things so competitive for other people. It's frustrating to us at times when you have something that works, and they kind of take it away or implement a rule. What it does is it helps the other people. If you're off just the slightest bit, there's three, four, five, 10 guys that can win any week, where years ago it was a lot less than that.
I think it's tougher. I think everybody has to be on 110% to be able to run in the top five every week.
DENISE MALOOF: Greg, thanks for taking time for us today. Thanks for joining us. Good luck on Saturday.
GREG ZIPADELLI: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
DENISE MALOOF: Thank you, everyone, for your participation. We'll see you again next Tuesday.
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