Q&A with Tony Stewart
HERB BRANHAM: We're going to move on with our next driver this afternoon. We are joined by Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. If you could just start off by telling us how your first day and a half of testing has gone down here.
TONY STEWART: Pretty good. We've not missed a shift yet, and that's the hardest part of what we've done the last day and a half. So other than that, it's just hold it wide open and ride around.
HERB BRANHAM: This year we have the 50th running of the Daytona 500, always an important race to win. Talk about what it would mean to win the 50th edition.
TONY STEWART: The same as what it would have meant to win the 49th edition last year.
Q. I know it's just testing, but Toyota has been posting top speeds, something they weren't able to do last year. What's changed in the last year or maybe just even in the off-season?
TONY STEWART: I don't know, I just started working for them yesterday. I mean, yesterday was my first real day, other than a tire test at Vegas. So I don't know. I mean, I haven't been with the program a year to know where they started and how they got to where they are today.
Q. There's been a lot of talk, as there always is, about driver personalities and people that are boring and how they can show more personality and everything like that. Obviously you don't have a problem with that, but my question is is it worth it for people to show their personalities given that there's such a firestorm sometimes when you do, if you make comments that people don't like?
TONY STEWART: Yeah, I don't think it's worth it to be honest. And the thing is most of the people you deal with on a weekly basis, nine out of the ten get it and know what you mean, but the tenth person that doesn't get it or is trying to find an angle to make it the way they want it to come out makes it not worth it. It's just a lot easier just to be kind of plain-Jane and know that when you leave the track Sunday night you don't have to go to work Monday and Tuesday putting out fires.
Q. Last weekend you're in a Chevy at the Chili Bowl. They've obviously made a huge investment in your Sprint Car, and now you're going to be the face of the Sprint Cup operation. Can you talk about the line you're walking there? Is it kind of hard on one side to be working for Toyota and on the other side to be aligned with Chevy/GM?
TONY STEWART: Not really. When we started the USAC programs we went to Mopar right away, so I was driving a Chevy on the Cup side and driving – all of our open wheel teams were Mopar. So it's no different than what I've had to do in the past with it. It's really not that big a deal.
Q. After all your experience does it get easier to handle the changes at this level, the changes of rules, equipment, engines?
TONY STEWART: I think everybody that gets to this level can handle it. I don't think it's a bigger deal having more experience. But this year it's not as big a change obviously. In the big picture it seems like a huge change because we switched manufacturers. But if we went ahead and made this change a year ago, it would have been a lot more dramatic than it is this year with the car that's the same for everybody. It's just literally a decal package and a motor package for the most part. I think it's less of a change this year than it would have been in the past.
Q. Can you talk about Joe Gibbs coming back and whether you've had a chance to digest what that means for you guys over there?
TONY STEWART: I don't know what it's going to mean, honestly. Obviously the football deal didn't work out quite as everybody hoped it would have for Joe. He put a lot of time in it and heart and soul into it. But we're glad to have him back because we missed him when he was gone in the first place. Not that we ever felt like there was a void there, but Joe's personality was definitely missed a lot, and obviously he has leadership qualities that – no matter how much time J.D. spent with him, Joe is Joe and J.D. is J.D.
Having Joe back around is going to be a lot of fun. We all missed him the last couple years and we hated to see him leave on those kind of terms and everything, but happy at the same time that he's back.
We'll find out in the next couple months, I guess. It never hurts to have Joe around. I mean, it can't hurt an organization to have Joe Gibbs around. He's a great leader.
Q. Clair kind of did the job for me, but if I can just ask a quick follow-up, do you mind sort of telling us sort of when and how you heard about Coach Gibbs' decision and just your gut reaction at the moment?
TONY STEWART: I was last week in Oklahoma racing and had just heard from somebody in my organization that Joe was getting ready to make an announcement that he was coming back. I can't say it surprised me, actually. To see him struggle like that the last two years wasn't something that – like I said, that anybody anticipated was going to happen. But at the same time, you know, you learn to never say never with Joe and you learn to expect the unexpected.
I was kind of preoccupied that day with what I was doing, but at the same time it was shocking to hear that because I really expected him to be there at least another year and hopefully get everything turned around.
Q. I have not seen your name show up on any of the entry lists for next weekend's Rolex 24. Any reason why you're skipping the race this year?
TONY STEWART: We've got four out of five straight days of testing the next week. With our schedule as heavy as it is on the Cup side, to leave on Sunday afternoon and fly straight to Vegas after being up all night and running a 24-hour race and then trying to test two days and have a travel day the next day on Wednesday and then test two more days, it makes for a pretty long week.
I told Jim France if he could get the test moved back a week or get it to where we didn't start until Wednesday I'd have been more than happy to do it. I'm going to miss being at the Rolex obviously, but at the same time I'm not going to beat myself into the ground early in the year this year.
We've got a pretty aggressive testing schedule with the NASCAR tests that we already have scheduled, plus our own tests that we're scheduling. So we're just trying to make it where we're not just wore out by the time we come here in February.
Q. You talked a little bit about this in the past, but I'm just wondering if over the last couple of months if you had any stories about anybody you've run into who has had a negative reaction about you switching to Toyota, anything at all along those lines?
TONY STEWART: No, we honestly haven't. It's been surprising. Listening to everything a year ago, I thought we would have heard a lot more than what we did. But we really haven't heard anything. It's been very, very small from that standpoint.
Q. You probably answered this so this will be your favorite kind of question –
TONY STEWART: Coming from you it won't be a surprise.
Q. I know. You hate testing or don't like it so much, you have skipped this session in years past. Can you talk about your decision to be here this year?
TONY STEWART: It was pretty easy. It's because Chili Bowl was last week and our test session was this week. Literally that's what the decision was. It wasn't are we going to go or are we not going to go. Strictly it was just the past two or three years we've always ran the Chili Bowl the same week that our test has come up. Mike has always come and it's always been single runs anyway, so it really wasn't a factor.
But it worked out better for us this year that the race was last week, and then this week since we're doing drafting practice this afternoon and tomorrow, it worked out better that it got separated like that, so it worked out in our favor. Ecstatic.
Q. Does the Toyota feel any different than the Chevrolet, or if you didn't know what car make you were in you wouldn't know that there was a change?
TONY STEWART: I wouldn't know the difference so far. It's hard to say. I mean, you've got to keep in mind, you're on a two-and-a-half-mile track and you're holding it wide open. You're not going to really feel it until you get around other cars. Any driver that says they can is a heck of a lot better driver than me because I can't tell the difference. I couldn't tell the difference when we went to Vegas. You're not going to know. You're not talking about 20-, 30-horsepower gains to where you're going to feel it. You're only talking five- to eight-horsepower difference, and you're not going to feel that. Any driver that says he can feel that on the racetrack is lying to you.
Q. Do you think the change of manufacturer is really a bigger deal for the fan to absorb or the guys that are out there on the track?
TONY STEWART: It looks the same from where I am, so it's probably a bigger change for the fans than anything. Obviously if we go down the straightaway faster it's going to be a big deal for us behind the steering wheel. But again, I guess to answer your question, it's probably going to be more for the fans than anything.
Q. There was an extremely low truck count out there for preseason testing, 32 of a 36-truck field. You've jumped on them in the past, and of course we've heard people talking about how fun they are, but would there be any chance you would throw something together or jump in a Kevin Harvick truck or something? Would you want to do something like that?
TONY STEWART: No.
Q. Your open-wheel team session with Chevrolets, Toyota makes a pretty good midget engine from what I understand. Any thoughts of switching the open-wheel program to the Toyota?
TONY STEWART: No, because we've got a contract with Chevy, so it made that decision real easy.
Q. This is another one you've answered before, but in light of my –
TONY STEWART: Why are you asking it again?
Q. It's pertinent again. The dissolution of, I guess, the crew chief-driver relationship with Kenseth and Reiser, it kind of puts more of a focus on you and Zips being even longer of a partnership than anybody else out there. Just talk about what it's like. Getting here yesterday, I don't know how long it had been since you've seen Zippy, what it's like seeing him again and getting back to work. Talk about what makes your relationship so great.
TONY STEWART: The same as when you asked me in December, I guess. But it really wasn't a big deal when we saw each other yesterday. We've done this off and on for 38 weeks a year for nine straight years now, so it's not like we're apart for a year from each other and it's a big class reunion. Zippy and I talk a lot even in the off-season when we don't get a chance to see each other, we still talk on the phone. So it's not like it's a big deal that we haven't seen each other since the Joe Gibbs Christmas party in December.
It was only two or three weeks ago – actually it was two weeks ago that we were hunting together. We still see each other a lot in the off-season, and when we don't see each other we talk on the phone and keep up.
But the same thing, this is the same answer I've probably answered 400 times as far as why we get along so good together. We have the same passion and desire to win, and when you have that and when you have a combination like that, you work really hard to protect it. I think Zippy and I are now that position to where we don't see each other doing something away from each other. If one of us decides to retire, the other one is going along with him. If he says, "I'm done, I'm ready to do something different," then that's probably when I'll say I'm ready to do something different, too, or vice versa.
Q. I was talking to the Toyota people about your long-term contract, and they're very anxious to show you that they can perform. You had said that you were going to wait, that you didn't want to do it during the off-season. Is performance a key thing that you're watching for before you get into those contract talks, or are you just going to take your time?
TONY STEWART: Well, it's obviously a lot easier to sit back and wait and see what happens and see what direction things go. But if seeing what we've done so far is any indication, I think they've done a great job already.
You know, my No. 1 goal is just like sitting here, and Dale, Jr., everybody has got the same goal, we all want to go out and win races and that's what it boils down to at the end of the day. Like I told you guys last year, I don't care if it's Key or whoever, I just want to win races.
This is the position that Joe and J.D. thought was best to give us that opportunity, and right now we're just worried about winning. We'll worry about all the paperwork and all that legal stuff later on. It's not a high priority on my list right now, honestly. I want to go out and worry about winning races, and I've got two years to figure out what I'm trying to do. The immediate thing is trying to figure out what we've got to do to win at Daytona and then the following week and the following week.
Q. Are you going to find time to go to Barrett-Jackson this week, and if so –
TONY STEWART: I'm leaving tomorrow afternoon as soon as Zippy says we're loading up. I don't have anything on the list of things that I'm going out and taking a look at. That's just a fun event. That's actually the last thing I get to do before the season starts that I actually get to go have fun. It's kind of a trip with a group of guys that I have fun with, and we get away from home and get away from the women of the house and go have fun and play around with a bunch of car guys. We'll enjoy it.
Q. You've got Mike Joy there to help you out?
TONY STEWART: Yeah, Mike Joy is my go-to guy on whether this is a good car or a bad car or all that. All you've got to do is listen to the TV this week and you'll know he knows his stuff on cars for sure.