NASCAR: Stewart looking for win today

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 24, 2008

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
CONCORD ó Only one race really matters to Tony Stewart, and he’ll be more than 600 miles from it on today.
He accepted long ago that his chances of winning the Indianapolis 500 are slim-to-none, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to race for on Memorial Day weekend.
For Stewart, a win in the Coca-Cola 600 could soften the sting of not racing at Indy.
“It’s a huge weekend in racing, no matter where you’re at,” said Stewart, who starts 31st today.
“It’s Memorial Day weekend, it’s the Coca-Cola 600 and this is all the teams’ home track. This is a place you want to win at. This is bragging rights for all of us.”
In nine previous Coca-Cola 600s, Stewart has five top-10s. His best finish was third in 2001, the second and final time he ran “The Double” by racing in Indianapolis ó he finished sixth there ó then flying back to Lowe’s Motor Speedway for NASCAR’s longest race of the year.
A later start time in Indy makes it impossible for Stewart to attempt the feat again, at least not as long as he’s running for a championship here in the Sprint Cup Series. So he has to settle for the 600, and thought he finally had a win here last year when he led 55 laps late but was two laps short of the finish on fuel.
A very late pit stop cost him the win when Casey Mears and a handful of others had enough gas in there tank to race to the checkered flag.
“We should have won it and lost it on fuel mileage,” Stewart said. “I remember being so mad for the whole week because I lost the Coke 600. I didn’t lose it because I got out-raced, I lost it on fuel mileage. Just losing it in that fashion was hard to take.”
He’d like another shot at it, but his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team is in a very different spot than it was one year ago.
For starters, the two-time Cup champion is entertaining offers to leave the team and is expected to make a decision in the next three to four weeks. Although his contract with JGR runs through 2009, the likelihood of Stewart being back in the 20 next year appears to be very slim.
He said this weekend he’s “on the back side of the hill of getting everything done.” Team president J.D. Gibbs said only that talks are continuing to keep Stewart.
But it’s made for an unsettling situation for his team, particularly crew chief Greg Zipadelli. The two are in their 10th season together in the longest active driver-crew chief pairing in the garage, and the lingering questions about their future are clearly wearing on one of Stewart’s most loyal supporters.
“Every guy on my team, everybody at the shop wants to know who is what and where, and what’s going on,” Zipadelli said. “Everybody in the media wants to know what’s going on. It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, somebody wants to ask you something about it.
“As tough as you think you are, as cool as you think you can be, when it gets brought up every day, it’s a distraction.”
Zipadelli steadfastly maintains that Stewart’s status is not what’s kept the team from Victory Lane this year. And the distractions aren’t so great to knock Stewart from his role as a consistent contender every time he climbs into his car.
But he argues a team can’t be distracted and still be the one to beat every week.
“It’s just way too early in the season, to me, to have that kind of stuff going on,” he said. “If it was Dover in the fall, it’s one thing. I can’t control this, I didn’t start it, but it’s certainly a little bit of a distraction and that’s just the way it is.
“And the teams that don’t have distractions and are focused 110 percent, those are the teams that are tough to beat.”
Gibbs doesn’t believe the situation is severe enough to sidetrack the team, but acknowledges a level of uncertainty likely exists.
“There’s something sitting there. How long is it going to sit there? That’s frustrating and those guys want direction for the future,” Gibbs said. “Tony? It doesn’t bother him. The guys? They just want to go and race. The rest of this stuff isn’t what they signed on for.
“But I would be real surprised if it harmed them. They usually run pretty well when things are crazy.”
That’s exactly what Zipadelli is hoping for as the season moves into the part of the schedule where Stewart typically heats up. Only twice in his career has he scored his first win of the season before the 11th race of the year, and most of his wins usually come during the hot summer months.
Still, questions linger about his inability to reach Victory Lane in a year in which teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have combined for four wins already.
Stewart insists he has no jealousy toward his fast, young teammates.
“We’re running better than we were last year, but our teammates are too, which is great,” he said. “I guess I’ve been part of a multi-car team long enough to know the value of it as a driver. When your teammates are running good and even if they’re running better ó that’s a good sign that you know your stuff is the same as theirs and you’ve got that same opportunity every week.
“It’s just a matter of putting the day together, and we just haven’t been able to put that day together yet. We’re not into our part of the season yet, either.”