The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series' visit to Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., for Sunday's Tropicana 400 marks round number 18 on the 36-race schedule. It's the official halfway point for competitors in NASCAR's elite division, with the season finale taking place Nov. 21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Home Depot Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart is an impressive fourth in points despite enduring a roller-coaster first half of 2004. He opened the season strong with a second-place effort in the Daytona 500, but his seven other top-10 finishes have been offset by eight finishes of 15th or worse. Coming into Chicagoland, Stewart is 110 markers arrears third-place Jeff Gordon, 315 points behind second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., and 342 points away from series leader Jimmie Johnson.

But in 2004, that kind of a point deficit is a moot point. Beginning with the Tropicana 400, Nextel Cup drivers have just eight races left to either stay in the top-10 or break into the top-10 before becoming eligible for the final 10-race "Chase for the Championship." For Stewart and Co., their goal is maintaining their top-10 status, because following the Sept. 11 race at Richmond (Va.), those in the top-10 get their points adjusted. The leader will get 5,050 points, with a five-point breakdown for each subsequent position through the remainder of top-10. It's essentially a new season.

But compared to other racing series, the entire second half of the Nextel Cup season is a season in itself. Formula One's season is 18 races long, while the IRL IndyCar Series has just 16 races this year. Champ Car has 16 races also, but three are at venues to be determined, while the Trans Am Series and the American LeMans Series have 19 races combined.

Much will happen in the next eight races and again in the final 10. Needless to say, the race is on - twice.

Question: As we come into the mid-point of the season, what are your thoughts on your season to date? And what is your outlook for the second half of the year?
"I'm not totally satisfied with it, but I don't think anyone is totally satisfied with the way their season is going. You always want to be better than what you are. Basically, we just need as many good runs as we can get. People talk about momentum in this sport and how important it is. We'd like to create a little bit of our own with a strong run at Chicago. This is typically the point in the season where we excel, and we need to make the most of it. We need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way."

Question: Does the new point system change the way you race?
"Not at all. We take each race one week at a time just like we've done every other season. You can't be worrying about the points. If you do your job each week and try to win the race, it's like I've always said, the points will take care of themselves - no matter what the format is. If you change what you're doing just to adjust to the new points system, I think you're going to run into trouble. If you always try to win, then that means you're always trying to get as many points as possible. I don't know why anyone would go away from that."

Question: After restrictor plate racing at Daytona (Fla.), are you looking forward to racing at Chicagoland?
"Absolutely. What you do at Chicago is solely based on what you and your team can do with your race car, not what drafting line you're in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move. There are too many variables out of your control in a plate race. At Chicago, we're back in control. There are still things out there that can screw up your day, but they're minimal when compared to what we dealt with at Daytona."

Question: Chicagoland and its sister track in Kansas look exactly alike. Are they?
"They're about as close as you can get to being the same. You aren't going to find any two tra

cks that are more identical than Kansas and Chicago. The only difference between the two tracks - the backstretch at Chicago is a little bit rounded while Kansas' is straight."

Question: With grip being an issue since Chicagoland is still a relatively new track, where are the passing zones?
"I think you can pass anywhere, really. If you get a guy that misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. But even if someone doesn't make a mistake and you've got a little better car than they do, I honestly think the groove will move up a little bit this year to where it'll be a little wider and you'll have more room to get a run on a guy. But as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car's handling will become more important. And when a guy makes a mistake you need to be there to capitalize on it. You can really pass anywhere as long as the right opportunity comes up."

Question: Why is it that races at D-shaped ovals seem to be won in fairly dominating fashion?
"If a guy gets going and gets his car balanced, then he'll tend to run away. That's just the characteristic of that kind of track. It's fast, it's flat and momentum is so important there, that if a guy is off just a little, he's off a lot. The drivers like it from the standpoint that if you can find a way to get around it a little better, then it'll help them in the long run. You end up racing the race track instead of each other."

Question: Track position and pit strategy seem to be the two biggest variables at Chicagoland. When and how do you make the decision to sacrifice tires for track position, or depending on the circumstances, track position for tires?
"I think it just depends on how your car is working. If your car is driving well, one that keeps you up toward the front all day because it's fast, then just two tires can keep you pretty quick. In that situation, you could make a big gain at the end by just taking on two tires and maintaining your track position. Even some guys who are behind and don't have their car the way they want, by taking on two tires, the track position they gain helps out more than four tires would. But when you get right down to it, I think Chicago is a track where if your car's good, then it doesn't matter whether you take two tires or four."

GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet:

Question: Chicagoland and its sister track in Kansas look exactly alike. Are they?
"There are some similarities. The transitions into the corners are a little bit different from Chicago to Kansas, so that'll make your front spring combinations a little bit different. But other than that, everything is real similar. You drive each track the same way. We ran really good at Chicago last year and we ran well at Kansas last fall, so we're hoping to go back to Chicago and run well again. For years we kind of struggled at the mile-and-a-half ovals, but it seemed that last year we kind of progressed a lot. Las Vegas was a pretty good example of that, but we've been kind of hit or miss since then. Chicago's a good opportunity to get back on track."

Notes of Interest:

- The Tropicana 400 will mark Stewart?s 194th career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series start and his fourth career start at Chicagoland.

- Stewart has enjoyed two straight top-three results in his past two races at Chicagoland, as he finished second to last year?s winner Ryan Newman and third to 2002 race winner Kevin Harvick. In those two races Stewart led a total of 115 laps, or 21.5 percent of the 534 laps available.

- In his runner-up finish to Newman at last year?s race, Stewart led three times for 80 laps ? the most of any driver ? to score just as many points as Newman did for winning (180). It was that type of scenario ? where the second-place driver earns as many

points as the first-place driver ? that prompted NASCAR to adjust the points system this season. In 2004, even if the second-place driver leads the most laps and earns the 10 bonus points that go along with leading the most laps, the maximum amount of points he can receive is 180, while the winner of the race is assured of earning 185 points.

- Race Rewind ? Last year?s race at Chicagoland proved to be a big points gain for Stewart thanks to his second-place result. But getting there wasn?t easy. A lap 120 incident while racing three-wide with Robby Gordon damaged the left front fender of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet, dropping Stewart from fifth after a round of yellow flag pit stops to 14th. Stewart used the remaining 147 laps to rally back to second, which vaulted him from 11th to eighth in championship point standings.

- Stewart won his seventh career and most recent Nextel Cup pole 36 races ago in qualifying for last year?s Tropicana 400. He set a new track record in the process, lapping the 1.5-mile oval in 29.223 seconds at 184.786 mph.

- Stewart is currently fourth in the Nextel Cup point standings with 2,203 points, 342 markers behind series leader Jimmie Johnson. Stewart gained two positions in the championship point standings as a result of his fifth-place finish at Daytona. He trails third-place Jeff Gordon by 110 points and second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., by 315 points. Stewart holds a 14-point advantage over fifth-place Matt Kenseth and a 39-point lead over sixth-place Bobby Labonte, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing. Also close behind is seventh-place Kurt Busch, 50 points arrears Stewart, and eighth-place Elliott Sadler, 51 points back. At this point last year Stewart was 11th in the standings with 1,949 points, 602 markers behind series leader Kenseth. Stewart has scored 254 more points this year than he did last year heading into the 18th race of the season.

- Seventeen races into 2004, Stewart is tied with Jimmie Johnson for second in bonus points earned with a total of 70. Leading all Nextel Cup drivers in bonus points is Jeff Gordon with 85. Dale Earnhardt Jr., is third with 65 bonus points. Ryan Newman is fourth with 60 bonus points. And tied for fifth in bonus points are Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne, with 50 bonus points apiece. (Bonus points are awarded only for laps led. Five points are given for leading a lap, while another five points are given for leading the most laps. ? Ed.)

- Stewart is one of only four drivers who have been ranked in the top-10 in points through the first 17 races of 2004. The other three drivers are Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Elliott Sadler.

- Home Depot store #2818, located in Baxter, Minn., will be represented on the lower rear quarterpanel of the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet during the Tropicana 400. Store #2818 was judged to be the outstanding store of the past week, thereby earning its place on the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing machine.

- Home Depot Olympians at Chicagoland ? Tara Nott-Cunningham (weightlifting) and Kevin Han (badminton) will be guests of the #20 Home Depot Racing Team this weekend at Chicagoland. Nott-Cunningham, who works in the paint department at The Home Depot in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., and Han, who works in the I.S. department at The Home Depot Store Support Center in Orange, Calif., are just two of the 174 U.S. Olympic athletes working in Home Depot stores. Both have qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The Home Depot is the largest employer in the U.S. Olympic Committee?s Olympic Job Opportunities Program (OJOP), offering Olympic and Paralympic athletes and hopefuls a flexible 20-hour work week with full-time pay and benefits to accommodate demanding training and competition schedules. Since 1992, Home Depot has employed more than 430 athlete-associates through OJOP and similar programs in Canada and Puerto Rico.

Click here for information about the July 9-11 NASCAR weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

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