New attitude helping Stewart cope
Tony Stewart has been noticeably quieter and calmer this season despite a series of frustrations that in other years might have set off NASCAR's sometimes bad boy.
After finally breaking through last Sunday in Sonoma, Calif., for his first win since last August, Stewart acknowledged he is disappointed in the way things have gone in 2005 despite the fact that he is fourth in the point standings heading into Saturday night's Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
The difference: a soul-cleansing team meeting at the end of last season.
"That's the best thing that happened, that I sat down with my race team and let them vent for a day, and it was one of the most productive meetings as a race team that we've had since I've been there," said Stewart, who has driven the No. 20 entry for Joe Gibbs Racing since arriving in the Cup series in 1999.
"We got a lot of things out in the air," he added. "From the start of the season we've had fun racing as a team and, even the days where we've had problems, it's made it easier to go back to the shop and stick together as a team and not get down.
"When you have a team effort like that and a support group like that, if one person gets down it's easy to have that many guys that are on your side to help pick you up."
Stewart never has enjoyed the baggage that comes along with being a Nextel Cup star. Media obligations, sponsor appearances and testing all put a strain on the top drivers.
That team meeting, and new attitudes, have made a difference.
"We've simplified it," Stewart said. "This series is so complicated it's hard to have a life, so it's hard to keep a positive attitude. We find more things to do as a team now than we've ever done before, whether it's playing cards or going to watch a movie or whatever it is."
Stewart's 2005 season, which he characterizes as "probably one of the worst seasons we've had up until this point," has had its ups and downs. In the 15 races before last Sunday, Stewart offset three second-place finishes and a third with five finishes of 30th or worse. Three times he led the most laps in a race and failed to win.
He acknowledges it has been frustrating and, at times, even maddening.
"But, at the same time, the attitude of the team is better than it's been since 1999," Stewart said. "Even though it isn't the season that we've wanted, it's made it more acceptable.
"And that doesn't mean we're being complacent. It just makes it to where we're all on the same page and we're all working toward the same goal. We're all there to pick each other up and we're having fun with it.
"We were all down at San Francisco the other day after the media day and I found a shop that had a flag that said, 'The beatings will continue until morale improves.' And everybody that's come in that trailer has laughed their butt off that's seen that. So, you know, that's just the kind of thing we're doing. Having fun, picking on each other."
Stewart always has credited crew chief Greg Zipadelli -- with Stewart since his rookie year -- as being the real leader of the team. But Zipadelli said Stewart has had a big hand in the change of atmosphere around the No. 20 team.
"Well, Tony is a big part of this team," Zipadelli said. "A lot of his attitude and the way he shows up, like myself, if I show up and I'm in a bad mood and I'm taking it out on the guys, then you've kind of set the tone for the weekend.
"We have a lot of responsibilities, but I think one of them is being the best leaders we can. Be their friends, be people. It's important that Tony and myself set that tone. You ask a lot of those guys, and we need to give that back to them."
Stewart, sitting next to Zipadelli, nodded.
"We've done it together and we're having fun," Stewart said, "even though the results haven't shown this year."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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