Stewart says this year, he knows how to win
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Tony Stewart spent his first two seasons setting records that might stand for a long time in NASCAR.
The best rookie year in history was followed by the most productive sophomore season. Now, the only unfinished business for the 29-year-old driver from Rushville, Ind., would seem to be the Winston Cup championship.
Can he win it in 2001?
"I'm not a genie, so I can't go out and predict anything," said Stewart, who starts the season Sunday in the Daytona 500.
That's terribly cautious talk from Stewart, who has nine victories, including a series-best six last season. But in one way, the 2000 campaign was not as good as 1999, when Stewart set records by winning three times and finishing fourth in the standings.
Although he doubled his total victories, Stewart fell two spots in the points race last year. And he learned the true impact of that dreaded race summary abbreviation 'DNF' -- did not finish.
In Winston Cup racing, where bad finishes hurt in the standings more than good ones help, DNFs are the virus of championship hopes.
"Yeah, I was disappointed by that," Stewart said of five DNFs. "But we knew at the end of 1999 that we had a really lucky and clean season."
Indeed. En route to his astounding finish in the standings, Stewart was running at the end of all but one of 34 races. But he never seriously contended because Dale Jarrett got off to a better start and was close to perfect in his championship season.
Then, as if Stewart needed one more demonstration, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte gave him one -- nary a failure in 2000.
"Bobby and Dale proved that it can be done, that you can easily win the championship and not win the most races," Stewart said. "It's just about doing your job and trying to protect yourself against having those DNFs."
How does one do that? Take care of the tires and don't overdrive a car set up to run a given line by trying to force it higher or lower on the banking.
Also, staying away from the rear of the field -- where many drivers are trying to push their equipment beyond its capability -- is the best way to avoid accidents. Two of them early last season made Stewart a long shot for the title before he really got up to speed.
His final standing in the points race reinforced some advice he once received from Gary Nelson, NASCAR's Winston Cup director.
"Gary told us in our rookie meeting in 1999 that you're pretty much going to have eight bad weekends," Stewart recalled.
He marvels at the performances of Labonte and Jarrett, and hopes that he can become a credible closer, not just a driver perceived by some to have had an enormous amount of good luck as a rookie.
In Labonte and Jarrett, Stewart saw two drivers who raced on or near the lead virtually without incident. Jarrett had only one DNF in 1999 and won the title with four victories because three-time series champion Jeff Gordon spoiled a seven-win season by going to the garage early seven times.
"The way those seasons went for Bobby and Dale, it wasn't hard to understand why they won," Stewart said. "They got to the front consistently and they stayed there, and they stayed out of trouble."
Crew chief Greg Zipadelli certainly would appreciate a little less excitement.
"It seemed like we didn't have many boring days last year," he said.
Stewart insists that avoiding costly finishes should be easier for the top teams because the engines are more reliable and the tires more predictable.
But the making of a champion goes beyond that. How to become one is Stewart's next quest. He thinks he learned plenty about that from Jarrett and Labonte in the last two years.
"They're just driving smarter, and getting themselves in a position where they don't crash and take themselves out of races," Stewart said.
Will that be the story for Stewart this year?
He certainly hopes so, and will be terribly disappointed should he fail to improve.
"The day I don't get better as a driver is the day I'm retiring," said Stewart, who last Sunday won the non-points Budweiser Shootout. "I don't think you're ever at a point in your life where you can't get better at whatever it is you're doing."