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It’s Ford Vs. Toyota In Championship 4 On Sunday

| , RacinToday.com Friday, November 17 2017

Kevin Harvick is carrying Ford’s colors into Sunday’s season-ending, championship-deciding race in Homestead, Fla..(RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

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Ford team-owner representatives Tony Stewart (Stewart-Haas Racing) and Walt Czarnecki (Team Penske) participated in press conference Friday morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway to discuss the possibility of a Blue Oval driver winning the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship on Sunday.

Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Cup champ, will represent SHR in his No. 4 Ford Fusion in the season-finale. Keselowski, the 2012 champ, will drive the No. 2 Fusion for Penske. The other Final Four participants are 2015 champion Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 18 Toyota Camry and Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 78 Camry fielded by Furniture Row Racing.

Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, is ending his first season in retirement as a NASCAR driver as co-owner of SHR with businessman Gene Haas.

An edited transcript follows:

QUESTION: We’re talking about the weekend and your teams, specifically how they’ve prepared to come into the championship.  Assuming they’re all ready to roll, we expect a great race on Sunday night.  How have your teams prepared?

WALT CZARNECKI:  “I hope that’s the same result on Sunday. First of all, I want to congratulate Joe, Tony and Joe on a wonderful, great season.  It’s wonderful to be up here with these three men, the teams they represent.  In terms of preparation, we’re doing everything we can to be able to come somewhat close to these guys on Sunday afternoon. Having said that, clearly like these other teams, the focus at Team Penske has been to getting to this point.  We’ve had the season as you all know of some ups and downs, I won’t belabor the point. But we’re here, we’re prepared.  We think we made some real gains particularly over the last three, four weeks.  I think you’ll find that the Miller Lite Ford and Brad are going to be competitive on Sunday afternoon.”

TONY STEWART:  “We’re excited. Obviously it was a big undertaking over the winter to switch to Ford, to start our own chassis department.  So to go out the first race of the year and win the Daytona 500 with Kurt (Busch) and Ford was a great kickoff.  Obviously the goal for the year is to get here to Homestead and have a car, if not multiple cars, in the Chase, in the final round here.

“Feel like two weeks ago at Texas, that team (Harvick won the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway) really set the tone for what’s going to happen this weekend I feel like.  It’s the last mile-and-a-half we run before we come here.  Feel like everybody at our shop was excited and encouraged the way those guys ran the last two or three mile-and-a-halfs.  We’ve had a lot of speed.

Feel like there’s been a gain at the right time of the year for our team, gained a lot of momentum.  The last two weeks in particular, getting this Homestead car ready, I’ve been excited to hear all the guys at the shop that work on that No. 4 car, they feel like it’s one of the best cars we’ve had all year if not the best car we’ve had all year.  That’s exactly what I want to hear as a car owner coming to Homestead, is we have the best piece, the best bullet in the chamber.

“I feel like probably for all four of us, at least on my side, the heavy-lifting is done at this point.  It’s a matter of going out and executing the plan this weekend, doing what we know we’re capable of doing.

“It’s a tough season.  It’s hard for everybody.  It’s hard for all the car owners no matter whether they made the championship round or not.  It’s extremely a tough season for everybody involved.  To be up here, we’re honored to be up here.  I know Gene (Haas) is excited, I’m excited.  Greg Zipadelli, our competition director, everybody through our whole system is really excited to be here, especially after all the changes that we went through over the winter.  We feel like it’s a great validation for why we made the change. Excited to try to bring a championship home for Ford this weekend.”

QUESTION: Tony, for so many years you’ve not been up here as an owner. What has this year been like for you? Big relief, weight off your shoulders?  Have you missed it?

TONY STEWART:  “No, I haven’t missed it. I mean, like I’ve said all along, I feel like I’ve been able to have the best of both worlds. I get to go race the dirt cars that I love racing, and still get to be here participating as an owner on the weekends. I laughed at what Joe (Gibbs) said earlier.  It’s because of Joe that I even tried to do something like this and be a car owner.  I always respected Joe. We’ve got a great relationship obviously, as you can tell.

 “I remember the day that he was ready to strangle me, the day I walked in and said I was going to be leaving Joe Gibbs Racing. The moment he stopped trying to strangle me is when I said, ‘I have the opportunity to be like you.’ That’s when he let go of my neck. Kind of hard to argue with that when you say you’re trying to be like one of your heroes.”

QUESTON: Again, as a three-time Cup champion, have you missed the driving part?

TONY STEWART: “I’ve enjoyed this year. There was one person over the course of the winter that told me this was going to be a lot harder than I thought it would be.  I looked at them when they told me last fall, I said, ‘You’re crazy, I already feel the weight off my shoulders.’

As the year has gone on, they’re right.  A lot bigger challenge than what I thought it would be. I’ve been busier than I’ve been in the last five years.  It’s been nice being busy doing stuff I want to do versus things I have to do. A big difference there.

“I love coming to the track. I love seeing all the people. I get to spend time with Joe and these guys walking up and down pit road, in the garage area. That’s stuff that during a regular weekend as a driver, you just don’t have that luxury without people chasing you around everywhere.

“It’s nice to be here. I’m enjoying my role. I enjoy working with our drivers and the crew chiefs and seeing all the crew guys during the weekend, just kind of keeping tabs of what’s going on, going from car to car, trying to find a common denominator of things we can work on. The longer the year went, the more I find stuff to keep me occupied and busy and more productive. Feel like I’m having a good time doing it.”

QUESTION: Brian France said last month that NASCAR is working with teams to control some expenses in a way that hasn’t been done in motorsports before.  What kind of adjustments can teams make or be put on the table? With that in mind, there’s been discussion about the TV money, how teams get 25 percent, whether that is something that should be adjusted to provide more for you guys.  How do you look at that?

WALT CZARNECKI:  “First of all, on the revenue side, I think we all agree as business people (there is a partnership), and it’s called business management style. I think there’s been a recognition on the part of NASCAR, I really commend them for working with the owners particularly over these past 24 months, understanding our issues as business people as well as being competitors _ being able to make sure that we’re good financial stewards of our own companies, while still being able to provide a great competitive product for NASCAR fans.

I think NASCAR has really done a great job, I feel, in working with us to organize those kinds of things.  They recognize, like everyone else, that the cost of doing business goes up. The old axiom in our business that speed costs money and how fast do you want to go? I think that’s fine to a certain point.  Then we have to be responsible, as I said earlier, responsible stewards towards that end.”

QUESTION: Tony, you’ve been on both ends of this, a driver who has won three championships, and an owner and sat up on that stage. There’s a possibility you’ll be doing that again Sunday night.  What is more satisfying, being the owner/champion or the driver/champion, or is it just different?

TONY STEWART:  “It’s the same. You’re not going to be a driver all your life. When you’re not a driver, I mean, people don’t know about me, I’ve won over 20 championships as a car-owner, not necessarily just in NASCAR.  It’s not something we’re new to.  It’s something I take a lot of pride in.

“They’re evenly as tough.  It’s just as tense, probably more tense, when you’re not in the car, to be honest, than when you are in the car. When you’re in the race car, you’re in control of what’s going on.  When you’re not in the race car, this will be the first time I haven’t been in the race car when we ran for a championship, so…

“I know the races, it’s a little more stressful when you know all the scenarios, you know everything that’s going on, versus being in the car and you only know a piece of the information of the big picture.

It will be probably tougher to watch it on Sunday from a pit box versus being in the car. But at the end of the day, if you’re up there hoisting a trophy, no matter whether you’re the winning owner or the winning driver, the feeling is the same but for different reasons.”

QUESTION: Walt, Roger told Brad at Texas, ‘Let’s just go out and have a good blue-collar day.’  He probably had a good blue-collar day all the way to the Championship 4. He hasn’t won races, led laps, that kind of thing. Team Penske isn’t used to coming in as the underdog.  What do you tell Brad, how do you get that team pumped up going into Sunday?

WALT CZARNECKI:  “First of all, I don’t view our position as underdog. The fact that we are here does not make any of us underdogs. I think the level of the playing field is pretty level. I made a comment about how I’ve seen Brad mature as a driver and as a person, being able to handle the vagaries of this sport, the ups and downs of this sport. He certainly had his share this year with a sense of equanimity. He’s going to do his job on Sunday. We as a team are obliged to give him a piece to be able to do that job effectively.

“I think we’ve had a pretty good year.  I just wanted to mention a minor point. This is the winningest season in the history of Team Penske. We won 31 races this year, an IndyCar championship, runnerup for an owner’s championship in the Xfinity Series tomorrow. Clearly we’re in the hunt for the Monster Energy Cup. In Australia we’ve had a great season, won 11 races, we’re 20 points out in the championship there with two races to go.

“I think the reason I say that is because it’s really developed a sense of confidence and enthusiasm in whether it’s happening in Bathurst or Texas or Sonoma.  We have all fed off that success this year. I think Brad has been part of that. I will say this _ I have seen him probably more focused in the second half of the season than in the several years he’s been with this on this very weekend.”

QUESTION: We’ve seen prominent Cup drivers being pushed out of rides because of costs. How as owners do you see the sport pushing itself to more relevance as we see useless controversy kind of overtake the racing?

WALT CZARNECKI:  “When you talk about the sport, are you speaking specifically of the NASCAR sport or motorsports in general? First of all, I think controversy is cultural in the world of today.  Secondly, again, I think working with the teams, personal opinion, I think NASCAR has done a great job again reaching out to those new constituencies that perhaps have not had an interest.

I don’t think there’s any question that children today don’t have the affinity to cars. I think we have beat that subject to death.  I think there’s a real push on the part of NASCAR and our teams and sponsors to help build new fans. Having said that, I think the Playoffs this year, the stage racing, has really created a level of excitement I haven’t seen before.  Echo what was said a couple minutes ago.  It’s been terrific.

“I think you’re aware that we’ve announced 12 sponsor renewals this year. No one has walked away.  They’ve extended.  Not only for Team Penske, but the sport, these big companies are willing to put their resources in place for years to come.”

 

| , RacinToday.com Friday, November 17 2017
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