Ask Tony Stewart how he won six races in the 2000 Winston Cup season and he’ll give you this answer: He honestly doesn’t know. But Stewart says he’s figured out what he needs to do this year to give Joe Gibbs a twin to Bobby Labonte’s 2000 championship trophy.

“I’ve got to keep my focus,” says the driver of the Home Depot Pontiac. “That’s what hurt me last year.”

Focus. Horsepower. Tactics. Drive. Determination. Luck. They all go into winning races. But some teams seem to be able to combine them into winning formulas, while others never seem to be able to get the mix quite right.

Under the skin, there’s really not much difference in Winston Cup cars. They all begin life as steel tubes on a welder’s jig, carefully fabricated to meet NASCAR’s exacting specifications.

Dyno the engines from a garage full of cars, and the figures will be within a couple of horsepower of one another. Everything NASCAR runs in its three top series’ has to fit body templates created to be sure teams don’t cheat both the wind and the rules.

So, what allows a driver like Stewart to win so many races in a single season, while others with nearly identical equipment, and much more experience, struggle just to get into the show?

Call it “the package.” Or “the combination.” Maybe it is just magic. It is the melding of talent, temperament and machines that rises above the competition race after race. It can be as solid as Dale Earnhardt’s seven Winston Cup championships or as fleeting as the victory of a one-win wonder.

The combination can take years to build, or it can fall into place during a team’s rookie season. It can happen at a dirt oval in Kentucky just as easily as on the high banks of Daytona, and, just like a magician’s silk scarf, it may evaporate without a trace.

For most people, the word “dominate” is reserved for teams like the Jeff Gordon/Ray Evernham juggernaut of the mid-1990s. But, the past few seasons have demonstrated that wins alone don’t guarantee a title.

When Labonte captured the Winston Cup championship last November, he did it on the strength of four wins. Teammate Stewart had six victories, but ended up sixth in the points. The difference? Labonte also finished in the top five 19 times to Stewart’s 12 top-five races.

“Bobby Labonte ran every lap but six last year,” says Benny Parsons, former Winston Cup champion turned TV analyst. “I can’t think of a word to describe that type of performance.”

That consistency brings home championships. It is the foundation of all success in motorsports. Ask six different people involved in racing to pinpoint the secret of their success and you’ll get a dozen different answers. All of them are right. Each person has an idea of what elements create victories.

Tony’s Approach

Love him or hate him—and most fans do one or the other—Stewart has emerged among the strongest candidates to wear the Winston Cup crown this season. It may be a case that the sum of the parts is greater that the two measured alone. Car owner Joe Gibbs says Stewart and Labonte use one another to make themselves better. “They are both good for the team,” says the retired NFL coach.

Labonte had a role in hand-picking Stewart to be his teammate.

“We looked at a lot of people,” Gibbs says. “At the end of it, Tony was the only one who had everything we wanted.”

The decision began paying dividends right away. Stewart picked-off three race wins in his rookie season and doubled the number in his sophomore year. “We knew he was talented and we knew he was smart, but we never expected he would do this well this early,” Gibbs says.

Stewart credits having confidence in his team and the cars it gives him as among the keys to performing on race day.

“The organization begins right at the top,” he says. “Joe Gibbs hired good people, and gives us good equipment, and lets us do our job. He’s still around every day, but he’s got confidence in the team. It’s just like he did in football. He hired two good offensive coaches—that would be Jimmy Makar and Greg Zipadelli—and some folks to work with the special teams—like the engine builders and the fabricators.”

“It means I can go out there and get into the car for Friday practice, and know it will be good, and that the wheels won’t fall off it,” he says. “That lets me get into the car and be comfortable from the first session. You can be the best driver in the world, but if you are worried about parts falling off the car, you’ll never do well.”

Stewart came to the Gibbs operation after a highly successful career in karts, midgets, sprint and Silver Crown cars and a stint in the IRL that saw him sit on the pole of the Indy 500.

“I think one of my advantages as a driver is that I never spent too much time in one type of car, so I never got so set in my ways that I couldn’t easily adapt to something else,” Stewart says.

Still, Stewart faced challenges from the start when he moved to stock cars. “I knew what I wanted the car to do, and I could tell the crew that, but I had no idea what they needed to do to make it right. Now I’m learning more about the car, and have a better idea of what works.”

An experimenter, Stewart often will ask Zipadelli to make a change to the car during the last 10 minutes of practice. It may be a shock, or a spring, or a change in toe or weight jacking.

“It isn’t anything we’ll run in a race, but it is something I want to try just so I know what it feels like,” Stewart says. “It is just more information for my data bank. Neither one of us is afraid to try different things—to experiment.”

Stewart sees the constant changes as part of a learning process that helps him win, and eventually will give him a Winston Cup title.

“I still lack a lot of knowledge to win the championship,” he says. “I’ve got to learn to be a lot smarter as a driver. Even on days we struggle, I have to learn to keep trying and score points. I watched how Bobby [Labonte] did that last year and I learned a lot from it.”

He learned one hard lesson in 2000. He alienated some fans when he complained about the pressures on drivers to accommodate the folks who buy tickets, while, at the same time, trying to concentrate on racing.

“This season I’m not going to be as concerned about pleasing everyone and I’ll concentrate on driving,” Stewart says. “When I was able to do that last year, I did a lot better as a driver. The same type of thing has happened to guys like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip. When I think of that, I don’t feel so bad.”

Team Building

Bill McAnally looks around his spacious shop at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “When we began this operation a year ago, I bought a stack of new nose and rear panels,” he says. “Most of them are still piled up. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful in Winston West. We can spend our time preparing instead of repairing.”

McAnally’s team has won back-to-back championships in the NASCAR Winston West Series, begun in 1954 to meet the clamor for Winston Cup style racing on the West Coast. The series has been the training ground for drivers like Ron Hornaday Jr., Derrike Cope, Chad Little, and racing icon Hershel McGriff.

It’s a tough schedule. There were a dozen races in 2000 at tracks in six Western states ranging from Salt Lake City, to southern California, to north of Seattle. Last year, 75 different drivers raced in the series, ranging from those who made events only at their local tracks to Brendan Gaughan, who took his NAPA/Orleans Casino-sponsored Monte Carlo to two wins and the championship.

Just a few years ago, McAnally owned and drove for his team. He was modestly successful, but lacked the resources to create a more professional operation. In 1998, NAPA came on as a sponsor and McAnally stepped back and put Canadian Gary Smith in the car. Then, in 1999, Sean Woodside won the championship for him. But success takes time. Two years ago, McAnally quit his “day job” to run the operation full time. And full time it is.

“You have to think about it when you get up in the morning, and racing is the last thing I think about when I go to sleep,” McAnally says. “Unless you are fully committed to being successful, you won’t be. It is really as simple as that.”

When putting his team together, McAnally looked for journeyman crew members and placed a premium on enthusiasm and personality. His employees have to be willing to learn, and sometimes learn from mistakes.

“Mistakes are part of racing,” McAnally says. “You have to accept that. We don’t spend much time blaming anyone for making a mistake. If we have a bad pit stop, we practice next week to be sure it doesn’t happen again. You can’t look at what happened last weekend. You have to concentrate on what you’ll do next weekend.” The team owner also says that having realistic expectations is part of winning titles.

“When Brendan joined us, we sat down and talked about consistency. You have to finish, you have to score points. Sometimes that means driving the car to what it is capable of doing. Sometimes you have a top-five car. On those days, you drive it to a top-five finish. You can’t drive it over what it is capable of doing. That’s how you get into trouble.”

Communication

Hours before the green flag drops on a NASCAR race, Benny Parsons prowls the garages. He watches the crews working on the cars to see which look confident and which look confounded. He talks to drivers, to the crew chiefs, and the team owners.

Later in the day, he’ll draw on what he learned that morning—and what he knows after 30-plus years in stock car racing—to explain to TV viewers, not only what is happening on the race track, but why.

“I wish I knew the secret of why some teams dominate and others never do,” says Parsons. “I know it isn’t just one thing, and I know it doesn’t just happen on Sunday. You win races on Friday and Saturday. If it isn’t right by Sunday, you don’t have a prayer.”

“With the cars and the competition as close as it is today, the drivers really do make a difference,” he says.

But Parsons, who won the 1973 NASCAR Winston Cup title and the 1975 Daytona 500, says the days when a good driver could carry a bad car are long gone.

“A driver can adjust his style—look at what Jeff Burton did at Phoenix to win the race last year—but there is no way he can be the factor he used to be when I was driving.”

But, while a driver can’t make a bad car good, he remains the most important ingredient in making it ready to race, Parsons says.

“It is something a driver feels and learns,” he says. “A good driver can feel what a car is doing, but until he learns why the car is doing it, he won’t know what he is feeling means. Some drivers learn it early; others just take a little longer.”

Parsons says that sense of oneness with the car is one of the reasons Jeff Gordon is so successful. That, and his ability to communicate.

“Jeff and Ray [Evernham] were on the same page every pit stop,” Parsons says. “If Jeff came in on page 962, Ray was on the same page. Ray knew exactly what Jeff was saying. Jeff is still a brilliant driver—and he’s got a remarkably good crew behind him now—but it is taking some time for them to catch up to him. When’s he’s on page 540, the crew is still on 525. They are certainly talented enough, but it is not going to happen overnight.”

When a team is used to winning, and then has a bad season, it is difficult to remain focused.

“It’s a lot easier to keep a team focused when it is winning, than when it is coming to the track week after week, qualifying 32nd and finishing 27th, three laps down,” Parsons says. “But if you don’t keep your focus, you’ll do it again and again.”

While a team knows it won’t win every race, it is important for it to arrive at the track thinking it can win that race.

“You look for the ‘IF’,” says Parsons. “IF you were running the same times as the leaders, and you got caught by a bad yellow, then you know you can compete. The same thing is true IF you hadn’t hit debris and have a flat tire, or IF a car didn’t wreck in front of you and take out yours. That gives a team something to build on.”

But isn’t that just racing luck?

“I’m not much of a believer in racing luck,” Parsons says. “Oh, it happens sometimes. Take a look at what happened last year to Jack Sprague. He simply got caught up in problems not of his own making. But if you are racing on the lead lap on lap 350, and your engine blows, that’s not bad luck. That’s something that didn’t get done right. If you run out of gas, that’s poor decision making. If a lug bolt gets left off during a pit stop, that’s not bad luck, that’s just bad performance.”

When Parsons won his NASCAR championship, he did it on the strength of a single victory added to a long string of good finishes.

“I wasn’t racing good enough to win a lot of races,” he says. “But I was running good enough to win the championship over guys who did. Look at what Dale Jarrett did in 1999 and Bobby Labonte did last season. They won championships by being consistent—by scoring points.”

Staying Ahead

When it comes to developing race teams, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs are very much alike—and at the same time, very different.

While Gibbs says he builds the team around his drivers, “I built my organization around me,” says Roush.

“We really did the same thing,” Roush explains. “Joe is very good with people, and I’m very good with the technology. I looked at what areas I was weakest in, and I hired people to fill in the holes. I try to shore up my weaknesses with the people around me.”

Roush runs his team like a general planning a military conquest. There is an air of precision in almost everything he does.

“When I started out in this business, there weren’t as many races and most of them were a lot closer. Every few weeks we’d get some time off to recover and catch up. Now, you can’t afford to get behind. You will never catch up. There’s much more emphasis on pacing and planning. Weekends off are an aberration,” Roush says.

Because of his background in engineering, Roush says his approach to racing is to constantly develop leading edge technology. In spite of NASCAR’s rigid rules and crew of enforcers, not all cars and engines are created equal, he contends.

“There’s absolutely a difference,” Roush says. “But with the way NASCAR enforces the rules, it just makes those differences more important. Years ago we could spend X-number of dollars to get an extra 20 horsepower. We thought that was a pretty good investment. Now, we spend a lot more to get only two horsepower. It’s still a good investment. If you are the only one out there with it, the difference can be huge.”

Roush’s signature straw hat is a familiar sight along pit row, where he’ll get involved in calling race strategy from a seat atop a toolbox. He is perhaps the most “hands on” successful team owner in the series.

“The core emphasis is to see that when things go wrong, they don’t go wrong a second time. We’ve had races where every one of our five cars finished in the top seven or eight positions. I think that indicates our methods aren’t wrong.” One of his unique methods is in hiring new drivers.

“I never even interviewed Greg Biffle,” he says. “Benny Parsons said I should hire him, and I’ve come to respect and often seek out Benny’s counsel.”

It was a good move. Biffle gave Roush his first NASCAR championship, winning the Craftsman Truck Series title in 2000. Biffle’s former teammate Kurt Busch, a rookie in this year’s Winston Cup Series, was put on the payroll after a test against other drivers that the team calls “The Gong Show.”

“We see how well a driver can do in a car that’s properly set up—what they can get out of it. And, we also put them in a car that has a problem and test how well they can adapt and work with the crew chief at making it better. It puts a lot of pressure on them to perform. No matter how good the technology, you still have to have a driver who can communicate. He has to know how to win; to work under the pressure of racing,” he says.

A Winning Fit

If Dale Jarrett could be an animal, would he prefer to be a cat or a dog? His answer could predict how Jarrett will interact within the Robert Yates team and what type of team management could give him a second Winston Cup championship.

Sounds crazy? It works, according to Dr. Robert Troutwine, a psychological consultant who works with businesses and teams in the National Football League. Just as mechanics will tell you there is no “magic screw” on a race car, Troutwine says there is no single person who can turn a mid-pack Late Model team into a pole sitting race winner.

“A lot of a team’s success depends upon how they ‘fit’ together as a unit,” Troutwine says.

Thus his question about cats and dogs.

“The dog or cat question is one we feel has a lot of symbolism,” Troutwine says. “A dog is man’s best friend. A cat is more independent. Players who go for dogs tend to like structure, and being part of a team is more important to them. Cats are guys who are more comfortable being a more solo contributor. You have to let him feel like he’s making the decisions.

“Fit is an important part of every job situation. Because you don’t fit with one organization, doesn’t mean you can’t excel with another. But, if you make a mistake with a guy who doesn’t fit your style, or what you want to do, you take a step back.”

Troutwine said he feels the question of “fit” may be the reason why some talented race teams never excel, while another with the same equipment and comparable talent can win repeated championships. So, what type of person does it take to mix well into a race team?

“It’s a curious combination,” he says. “They have to be very driven, yet be selfless when it comes to the team. A crew member has to realize that his job—even if it looks like a minor task compared to others—is critical to the team’s success. And no matter how good he does that job, it is the driver who will get all the attention.”

Racing differs from other team sports. On any given Sunday, one football team will win and the other will lose. But in racing, one team will win and more than 40 others will lose.

“The odds aren’t nearly so good,” Troutwine says. “When you aren’t winning, it becomes a lot harder to keep focused, to retain the drive.”

Troutwine says that’s where the management comes in.

“You have to begin looking at goals and trying to decide what you can achieve.” For a struggling team, that may mean simply qualifying. For another one, it may mean finishing the A-main or running in the top 10.

“The team’s leader has to set the goal and then give clear directions on how to achieve it,” he says. “And each crew member—from the driver to the guy who airs the tires—must know his role and recognize its importance. And then there has to be a way to measure the performance—to determine a way to figure out if you are achieving the goal.”

In racing terms, that may mean shaving a 10th of a second off a pit stop or qualifying a spot higher than the week before.

“One of the most important things is to not let losing—or having a bad weekend—be taken out of proportion, and allow the team to become dysfunctional.

People can get hysterical when things go wrong and a bad race can become a crisis. The solution is to simply fix the problem. It isn’t to fix blame.”

Relationships

Three years ago, Randy Goss climbed atop the Grainger Ford “war wagon” at Walt Disney World Speedway, and told driver Greg Biffle, “You just drive the truck. Let us take care of everything else.”

“It took us a while to get here,” Goss says of his relationship with Biffle, who has moved to the NASCAR Busch Series this year. “I think we still have a long way to go.”

Biffle finished fifth in his first outing in the truck series, and followed that showing by busting up a season’s worth of trucks in his next few races. “That’s the type of thing that can really drag a team down,” Goss says. “It never happened with us. Every time Greg had a problem, it was while we were hauling on the track. That made the difference. We knew Biffle had the talent. All we had to do was get him calmed down.”

Over three seasons together, Goss says he and Biffle built up a trust between them, with the driver and crew chief building confidence in the other’s abilities.

“The thing is, we didn’t give up,” adds Goss, a retired national motorcycle racing champion. “When we started out, Greg couldn’t tell me what he wanted in the truck. That was probably OK. Even if he told me, I probably couldn’t give it to him. We learned together.”

They confer on everything—race strategy, qualifying setup, getting the car ready to compete—and they’re never satisfied.

“Even when we dominated a race, Greg would always come off the track with some idea of what we could have done to make it better,” Goss says. “It didn’t make any difference if we just won three races in a row—he still wanted to talk about making it better. We don’t always agree. Sometimes we would make mistakes. The thing is when you have a bad day, you have to learn from it.”