Listen to Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for Tony Stewart, and you quickly gain insight into why Stewart won't successfully defend his Winston Cup title this season. A notoriously slow starter, the Home Depot team came out of the blocks stronger than ever this season, Zipadelli points out, and even stood second in points after the race at Darlington in March. Then the season turned sour.
Stewart finished 25th or worse in six of the seven races following Darlington, including consecutive finishes of 41st, 41st, and 40th.
First, there was a disaster at Bristol in a race that began the team's troubles. "Even after getting a fender torn off and bending a ball joint we were still going to salvage what had been a bad day-which is what you do when you're in the championship hunt," says Zipadelli. "Then an oil line, because of one of the wrecks, got pinched and killed the motor. We end up 30th."
The hard luck continued. "Then it was Texas (and a 34th)," continues Zipadelli, "running eighth or ninth, and we lost a motor with 30 to go."
The predictable struck at Talladega, where Stewart finished 25th. "We were in a wreck and we had had a very strong car," adds Zipadelli.
Martinsville's sixth-place finish was the lone bright spot, before California was the scene of an engine failure-and a finish of 41st. Richmond brought a crash and another 41st. At Charlotte, engine failure produced a finish of 40th.
Zipadelli lists his team's misfortunes in the first half of the season with the scripted nonchalance of a corporate CEO standing before a board of directors and defending his company's sudden drop in the stock market.
But there's no script for the bad racing luck that has plagued the No. 20 Home Depot team this season. And this is not a crew chief making excuses for rotten performance. This is one of the top wrenches in the sport offering analysis on his team's woes. Zipadelli's delivery is as unscripted as one of the five engine failures his team experienced in the first half of this season.
Yet Zipadelli understands that trying to explain bad racing luck is as hopeless as making up 717 points-the margin Stewart faced from 11th to first after 23 races-in the final third of the season.
"Now why is all this happening?" he says. "Did we lose all of our racing luck toward the end of last year, because we had a lot of good fortune and had things go our way? It sure isn't because of lack of effort or performance from our cars or especially our driver.
"It's probably more frustrating for me on the inside, not being able to give you an answer for our problems, than it is for someone like yourself trying to come up with something to explain to people on the outside."
The conclusion-if there is indeed a conclusive explanation-is that a championship performance demands near perfection, particularly with the parity that marks NASCAR's top division.
The run by driver Matt Kenseth and crew chief Robbie Reiser provides the current example, and most assuredly there'll be another next season. Kenseth, with just one win in the season's first 22 races, has had few crippling performances in 2003. Just when it appears disaster is ready to strike, Kenseth and Reiser pull off another strong finish. Zipadelli can relate. He and Stewart worked their way from dead last in points, following the 2002 Daytona 500, to the title, giving team owner Joe Gibbs another championship to go with the one earned by Bobby Labonte in 2000.
Now Kenseth and Reiser are poised to give team owner Jack Roush his first Winston Cup title-barring disaster, something that appears unlikely.
"They can't do anything wrong," observes Zipadelli, turning his crew chief's analytic eye from his team to another. "They've had stuff happen to them and it turns around and the caution falls right in their lap. I'm not talking bad or begrudging them, but I'm jealous as hell. You know what I mean? They're running well every week; they're doing what they've got to do; and they're doing a great job."
This Is The SeasonIn a perfect world, this would be Tony Stewart's championship year. From the disastourous start at Daytona in February 2002, to Stewart's well-documented off-track troubles, the intense, sometimes volatile driver endured more adversity last season than many drivers experience in a full career. Home Depot's unprecedented $50,000 fine against Stewart, after Stewart allegedly struck a photographer, was the low point. There were also reports of troubles between Stewart and Zipadelli and Stewart and his other Home Depot teammates. Given Stewart's problems, the team's ability to win the championship last year was, above all else, a testament to resiliency.
There's appears to be a new Tony Stewart this season, however. His flare-ups are at least of the low-profile variety. He told the Associated Press's Mike Harris earlier this year that he "got tired of being angry." To deal with his volatile temperament, Stewart brought in a sports psychologist midway through the 2002 season. He's says he's learned to relax, maintain his cool, and not let the myriad of distractions in the sport get under his skin.
Considering the team's problems this season-situations that most often have been out of Stewart's control-the new mindset couldn't have come at a better time. Stewart sounds like a motivational speaker when analyzing his team's midseason problems-far different from the angry man he became during trying times last season.
"It's been just little things here and little things there," Stewart says. "It's not been anything huge. I think all you guys (the media) expected me to flip out this year with the way things have gone, but we're running good. We're doing everything right. We just haven't had the luck to go with it. Having last year over with and out of the way and the stress of that being gone, it's helped put things in perspective. If we were running 25th to 30th or something, and blowing motors and having something happen, it would be harder to deal with.
"(Zipadelli is) putting great setups on the cars. The guys are building good cars, good bodies, good motors. All the ingredients have been there to win races all year, (but) it's a matter of having everything go our way. When you have a year like we had last year, we needed a lot of luck at the end of the year to help get us up to where we were. That's what happened-we had good luck. My grandfather's turning out to be a genius. He said everything makes a full circle, and it has. It went from everything being really good at the end of the year to things starting off to kind of going south for us.
"Now, hopefully, it's coming back the other side of that circle and we're finishing that cycle. There's nothing you can do about it. I think I've probably dealt with it better than Zippy has this year. I'm the one inside the trailer at the end of the day trying to find the positives in every negative this year. It's kept us with an open frame of mind to say, 'Hey we're doing everything we need to do; it's just a matter of getting luck on our side.' With that in mind, it has let us stay focused for the next week and not dwell on the past week."
While the sports psychologist no doubt helped the man dubbed "Tony the Tiger" deal with the stress of a Winston Cup campaign, there's nothing quite like a Winston Cup championship to ease an angry mind and soothe the psychological wounds of failure.
"It just seemed like once we won the championship last year, it was like a weight was lifted off our shoulders-like I dumped a 3,000-pound weight off my back," says Stewart. "As a race team, this year we've had more fun. Between the guys on the crew and myself, we've really enjoyed our racing this year. That's something we'd started to lose in the past.
"As much as we all loved the sport, we were losing the passion behind why we love it so much. We needed to get that back and luckily winning the championship did that for us."
As an NFL coach for several years and as a Winston Cup team owner, Gibbs has dealt with every temperament and situation imaginable in sports-and he's provided a steady, guiding hand for Stewart in good times and bad-but Gibbs has noticed a dramatic change in his driver. "We've had a lot of things happen to the car this year and he doesn't seem to get nearly as uptight and rattled by it," Gibbs says. "He's much more relaxed."
No Repeat TitleStewart's inability to repeat as champion is part of a pattern in the sport. He's the fourth consecutive champion who has failed to repeat. Since Jeff Gordon's back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998, the last four champions-Dale Jarrett, Labonte, Gordon, and Stewart-have faced the same dilemma. That points to the parity in the sport, which is fueled by the most intensively competitive period in Winston Cup history.
It's tougher than ever to win a Winston Cup title, and repeating as champion has become next to impossible. Significantly, three of the last four to win the title were first-time champions.
"When you win the first one, it's so overwhelming and there's a lot to sink in," says Gordon, a four-time champion. "A lot of times you won't see guys win back to back after they've won their first one. I didn't win back to back after my first one. I won back to back after my second one and I think that was because I knew what to expect. I knew how the schedule was going to go. I knew how to say yes to things and how to say no to things.
"When you're a first-time champion, a lot of times you don't say no to anything. You're like, 'Man, I'm Winston Cup champion and I want to do all the things and be the best Winston Cup champion I can be.' Then all of a sudden, you find yourself going, 'Wow, this is a lot of stuff and this is really wearing me down.'"
Stewart downplays the notion that winning the championship has actually taken focus away from this season. In typical fashion, he even places blame on the media for overstating the impact a title has on a champion's personal life.
"I've looked at myself as one of the 43 guys that starts the race every Sunday," says Stewart. "I think (representing the sport as champion) was built up too much to be honest. I'm not going to say it's disappointing, because it's actually been very pleasant for life to go on as usual-contrary to the belief of some of the media members. I've enjoyed it. There has not been anything unpleasant about it by any means. There have not been any added demands like everybody speculated. It's just been business as usual for us."
Zipadelli concedes that there are minor distractions that come with being the championship team, but says the chase itself may be the toughest element in winning a title.
"I think a lot of it is that you work so hard toward the end of the year where you, like we did last year, just try to win the championship, and we weren't working as hard on this year as we could have been," says Zipadelli. "And I don't mean that in a bad way, to say we didn't work, but maybe we weren't focused on it. Like right now (in mid-August), I've already got cars and chassis and stuff for next year. That's how far ahead I am this year, where last year I didn't start that stuff until the end of the year because I couldn't. We just didn't have the time or energy to do it."
The key to repeating a title, says Gordon, is to always be thinking ahead to next year. That was part of what made crew chief Ray Evernham and the Hendrick Motorsports organization so successful during Gordon's championship runs in 1995, 1997 and 1998.
"Ray is a very intense, very focused guy, and I can remember going through the '97 season when we were battling for the championship and he was already thinking about the following year," recalls Gordon. "I think through the experience of '95 and '96 (when the team failed to repeat), it kind of put us in a position to really know how to do it differently if you're ever in that position again. I think that is where Ray was really good and he kept that team focus on the future at all times. It was like, 'Yeah, we're going to go out there and win this championship in '97 but we're not going to lose sight of what we've got to do the next year to win it again.'"
Adapting To ChangeZipadelli says the notion that a championship team falls behind because of a reluctance to change and adapt in a rapidly changing sport-essentially standing pat and negating its chances of a repeat title-has been disproven by the Home Depot team. Circumstances dictated that staying the course was not an option for the team in 2003.
The Gibbs organization made a switch from Pontiac to Chevrolet this season, bringing with it the need to build new cars-18 says Zipadelli-and placing more emphasis than normal on testing. The team had to develop new packages to adjust to the brand change. The result-outside of the engine failures and other misfortune-has been a team capable of running up front. Despite the early setbacks, Stewart won this season's first Pocono race. He also led 11 of the first 22 races, and his 511 laps led were fourth most on the tour after the Watkins Glen race, while he was the leader in miles led, with 915.
"We've been running well," Stewart said soon after the Pocono win. "We've had better cars than we've ever had, better engines, the best bodies we've ever had on our cars. It's just a matter of everything falling into place, finally.
"When you go out and lead the laps that we led at Charlotte, (and) run as hard as we did at Dover, The Winston, California-you look at all those places-and we were doing our job. But we didn't have the luck on our side. We knew in our hearts that it was just a matter of time before it finally turned back around in our favor."
That, no doubt, was spoken by a man very much in touch with his emotions and with his place in life.
Gordon makes a point that may prove prophetic, considering Stewart's willingness to change.
"You've got to change with the times if you want to stay successful," says Gordon. "That's one of the things I admired so much about Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty and guys like Terry Labonte, people who won championships over several years in this sport. These guys were able to adapt to the times and the changing conditions of the cars and the tracks."
Above The PackCale Yarborough's three-straight Winston Cup titles, in 1976, 1977, and 1978, stand among the highest achievements in NASCAR. No other driver has won three championships consecutively, and no driver will duplicate the feat anytime soon given the nature of the sport.
Incredibly, Yarborough and his Junior Johnson-owned team were in the hunt for a fourth title in 1979, finishing 226 points back in fourth, but Richard Petty claimed his final title that year.
Petty won consecutive titles in 1974 and 1975 and earned seven altogether.
Johnson's success winning titles as a team owner was phenomenal in itself. In addition to the three titles by Yarborough, Johnson's team won consecutive titles with Darrell Waltrip in 1981 and 1982. Waltrip's championship in 1985 gave Johnson's team six titles in 10 seasons.
Team owner Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt won each of their six championships in pairs, first in 1986 and 1987, then in 1990 and 1991 and again in 1993 and 1994, giving them six titles in nine seasons. Earnhardt also won in 1980.
"When you look at Winston Cup championships," says Jeff Gordon, the last man to repeat as champion, "just having your name on that list says something. But when your name is on the list more than one time, it says a lot about that driver and it says a lot about that team, especially if they've done it back to back."
Drivers with repeat titles in NASCAR's modern era (since 1972)Richard Petty 1974-75Cale Yarborough 1976-77-78Darrell Waltrip 1981-82Dale Earnhardt 1986-87; 1990-91; 1993-94Jeff Gordon 1997-98