Goal in sight
The Nextel Cup season reaches the halfway point Saturday at Daytona with Tony Stewart still seeking his first victory. And that gets my vote as the season's biggest surprise.
After missing the Chase last season, Stewart closed out on a roll, winning three of 2006's last eight races. He opened '07 with victories in the Budweiser Shootout and the Gatorade Duel 150 and was leading the Daytona 500 with 48 laps to go when Kurt Busch put him into the Turn 4 wall. Stewart finished 43rd in the opener.
Stewart has recovered nicely in the Race to the Chase, with two second places and a third and eight more top-10s, carrying the Home Depot Chevrolet to sixth in the points. But he's also the only driver in the top 10 without a win.
With a 10-point bonus for each victory when the points are reset after 26 races, each W is crucial to the Chase and a driver's position in it. Stewart isn't alone. Clint Bowyer, in 11th, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., in 12th, are in the same boat if they make the Chase, although Stewart has a 200-point lead on Earnhardt.
A return to Daytona this weekend, though, provides an excellent opportunity for Stewart to secure his first Chase bonus points. He's won the last two Pepsi 400s and the No. 20 -- chassis No. 119 -- he'll be driving won the Shootout in February. Chassis No. 70, which won the last two 400s and the Duel, was demolished in the wreck in the 500.
Daytona is, of course, a restrictor-plate race, and drivers and teams that get on top usually stay on top. Typically, they're the best teams, too, which have the resources to devote to engine and aerodynamic development for a package that has been used only at Daytona and Talladega. And Saturday's race will be the finale for the old-style chassis; the Car of Tomorrow will be used at Talladega in October and in all the races next season.
Restrictor-plate means running in packs and running the risk of being caught up in multiple-car crashes. That makes the safest place in front.
"The restrictor-plate races at Daytona are always a wild card race," Stewart said. "You never know who's going to win."
But Stewart likes his chances more in the 400 than the 500. The hot and sticky weather of July agrees with the Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolets.
"We feel that our cars are better at Daytona in July than they actually are in February because the track is so much hotter and slicker," Stewart explained. "We seem to be able to find a balance that our car really likes. We have a lot of confidence that we can go back and win again.
"It's (Daytona) probably five times more of a handling race track in July than it is in February because of the heat. Even though it might cool off a little bit at night, there's so much heat in the race track that is just stays there and soaks in the asphalt."
In addition to having a fast car, Stewart says a driver has to know when to make the right moves in the draft.
"You have to have a fast car," Stewart said. "But with that fast car, you've got to have a good team that gets you in and out of the pits fast and you've got to have a driver who knows what he's doing. The strategy is making sure you've got somebody you can draft with. You have to take the opportunities as they come, but with those opportunities, you have to make very quick decision(s).
"You've got to think, 'What happens if I try this and it doesn't work? What are the ramifications going to be?' You don't have the luxury of sitting down and taking the time to analyze the situation. You've got to make a split-second decision. A lot of times it'll work, but there are times when the decision you made doesn't work. But once you've committed yourself to doing something, there's not much you can do about it."
Tony Eury Jr., the crew chief on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8, has told friends he won't leave DEI for Hendrick Motorsports unless he can take the 17 members of the race-team crew with him.
As Earnhardt undoubtedly would like to have Eury, his first cousin, and the crew move with him, the situation creates a dilemma for owner Rick Hendrick, who is fanatically loyal to his employees. Does Hendrick replace Alan Gustafson and the No. 5 crew, with Eury and his group, or does he move Casey Mears to the No. 5 and replace Darian Grubb and the No. 25 crew. Or perhaps he passes on Eury altogether? It's a tough call any way Hendrick does it.
If Hendrick does decide to bring in Eury, he's in a position keep everybody employed. The size of his organization will allow him find good positions. The question would become whether Gustafson, Grubb and those crew members will be willing to step out of their current at-track roles.
The IndyCar Series has run seven straight ovals since the street race at St. Petersburg, Fla., in early April, but starting with Sunday's race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., four of its last eight will be on road courses.
Dario Franchitti, with two straight victories and a third in this year's Indianapolis 500, has opened up a 359-294 lead in the points over Scott Dixon. Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan are next with 287.
Franchitti is an outstanding road racer, but doesn't have an IndyCar victory on a road course. Watkins Glen, though, would be his preference over the other road circuits on the schedule. It was the home of the United States Grand Prix from 1961-80 and fellow Scotsmen Jim Clark ('62, '66, '67) and Jackie Stewart ('68, '72) won there a combined five times. Franchitti became the second Scotsman to win Indy in May, joining Clark, one of his racing heroes.
"It would mean a lot [to win at Watkins Glen]," Franchitti said. "It would mean a hell of a lot, actually. I guess I'm part of the history of the sport and I hold the drivers of the past in the greatest esteem. So, to follow [Clark and Stewart] and just to win at Watkins Glen because it is such a historic track would mean a great deal to me. More so than just a normal victory, if you know what I mean."