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Stewart's team cooks winner under pressure

Crew chief kept team focused when distractions threatened to end title run.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002


AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Standing in the garage at Phoenix International Raceway, members of Tony Stewart's team lightheartedly offered their secrets for staying focused amid the swirl of distractions that threatened to derail the No. 20 Pontiac this season.

Prozac.

Ritalin.

A nice Chardonnay.

Stewart and his team have faced all types of adversity this season, from blown engines to blown tempers. But by closing ranks and keeping their cool, not to mention a sense of humor, the crew at Joe Gibbs Racing has Stewart poised to win the Winston Cup championship.

Stewart leads Mark Martin by 112 points and can clinch the title by adding 73 in today's Checker Auto Parts 500K. If he pads the lead by 39, he would need only to start next week's final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"I think a team of this caliber that has run as good as we have for four years, we need to win this championship," said crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who has been with Stewart since his 1999 rookie season. "We need to state that we are for real. What some people have said in the past is that because of the emotional roller coaster, we can't win it. I want the statement to be that we can win races, we can lead laps and we can win a championship."

If they can do it this year, they can do anything.

The roller coaster ride included a blown engine two laps into the season-opening Daytona 500, an early season win at Atlanta, a hard crash at Darlington that left Stewart with an aching back and the episode at Indianapolis in which an agitated Stewart punched a free-lance photographer.

Stewart won the next week at Watkins Glen but later was accused of shoving a fan at Bristol, which led to a sheriff's investigation. The case was dismissed. A few weeks later, Stewart took the points lead for the first time in his career.

Arrhhh!

Wheee!

The worst was Indy.

Stewart, who wants badly to win at his home track, slipped from third to 12th in the closing laps, parked his car in a vacant garage stall and, unable to control his emotions, lashed out at a photographer trying to take his picture.

Stewart was fined $10,000 by NASCAR and $50,000 by primary sponsor Home Depot and remains on probation with both. This was not the first incident of his career, so a reticent Stewart agreed to seek anger management counseling. He kept his job, but would team members be motivated to do theirs in the wake of Stewart's latest controversy?

"We had a team meeting and we all said we were going to stick together," said mechanic Bill Byrne, in his third season with the No. 20 team. "We all stand behind Tony. We know he's a good driver and can do the job. We didn't lose faith and didn't lose sight of where we were going."

Owner Joe Gibbs, who won the Super Bowl while coaching the Redskins, credits 35-year-old Zipadelli for holding the team together. Not only has Zipadelli kept Stewart calm, he has kept the entire team committed to winning.

"Over here, the crew chiefs are the coaches; they live it," Gibbs said. "They're here from Thursday to Sunday. I'm not; the front office is not. Although we all support that team, I certainly think that at the race track, and with everything that's happened, Greg deserves a lot of the credit because he's been a steadying influence."

Stewart agrees.

"If anything has changed with all the stuff that's gone on this year, my relationship with Greg is probably stronger," Stewart said. "He's the one person who has single-handedly carried this team to where it is. It's not been me."

Zipadelli is living his dream as a Winston Cup crew chief, but he never imagined the job would come with such pressure. In addition to making decisions about the race car, he also must manage and motivate the employees who work on it.

He sets the tone.

"We need to win this championship, just shut up and do our job," Zipadelli said. "This is what we're truly good at and what we love to do. Everybody here has wanted to do this his whole life, and now we have the opportunity to do it. We need to do it, rather than have people say we're not mentally strong enough."

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