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Defending Champion Stewart Seeks Chili Bowl Repeat

Saturday, January 12 from Tulsa, Okla. Live on HBO Pay-Per-View

Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart       Photo: Bob Hesser
TULSA, OKLAHOMA (January 4, 2008) - Tony Stewart has won 32 NASCAR Nextel Cup races, led the 24 Hours of Daytona, and started from the pole position in the Indianapolis 500. Clearly, the 36-year-old driving star from Columbus, IN, knows a thing or two about world-class venues and motorsports events surrounded by high publicity and international intrigue. And yet it is a Midget-car contest held each January inside a converted rodeo arena and livestock hall in Oklahoma that Stewart calls "the best race of the year for me."

Stewart, the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champion in 2002 and 2005, declares, "Yeah, if I could run only one race a year, and I had to pick, it would definitely be the Chili Bowl."

He is referring to the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, the 22nd annual edition of which will be held Jan. 8-12 inside the Tulsa Expo Center. Saturday night's headline action will be televised live, for the first time, on HBO Pay-Per-View.

The Chili Bowl, in Stewart's opinion, is "the toughest race to win," and he should know. Twice, in 2002 and '07, he has emerged as the victor in the Saturday-night A-Main finale, one of the most coveted short-track events in America. This year, some 280 plus Midgets are expected to haul to Tulsa for the mid-winter classic.

"When you've got [that many] guys that come to one track to try to make a 24-car starting field, and you beat those guys, that's something," says Stewart. "You just don't get lucky and do that. That's something you have to earn. I mean, the pressure is very intense to perform well - not only for myself, but for everybody there - because there's so many great champions from so many different parts of the country, and they want to prove that they're the best."

Stewart has been a semi-regular entrant in the Chili Bowl, missing some years due to conflicts with his NASCAR and Indy Car duties. But, whenever time has allowed and good rides have been available, he has come to Tulsa each January since the mid-1990s, when he was a dirt-track regular piling up feature wins from Ohio to California and earning a pair of United States Auto Club (USAC) National Midget championships, not to mention titles in USAC's Silver Crown and Sprint Car divisions.

Always, his Chili Bowl philosophy has been the same: "Plan ahead." A driver cannot win on Saturday night without first surviving the rugged qualifying nights on the tight Expo oval, when he is put to the test by heat races, last-chance events and preliminary features, not to mention rivals he may be seeing for the first time since the previous year's Chili Bowl. Toss in the ever- changing nature of dirt-track racing, and the whole exercise becomes as much a mental challenge as a physical contest.

"You always have to be paying attention," Stewart declares. "During your preliminary night, you have to watch the racetrack and see how it changes. You don't necessarily want your car to be handling perfect the first five laps [of the prelim feature]; you have to know what you need your car to be doing the last five laps, and how to set it up for that.

"There are so many good guys, great championship drivers, that won't make the A-Main. So the goal is to get yourself in the A-Main, and then, once you get yourself in the 'A,' finish as high as you can finish."

If all goes according to his plan, that will mean a third Chili Bowl championship, and a third "Golden Driller" trophy emblematic of the accomplishment. But Stewart, though generally a bright-eyed optimist, is realistic enough to know that no race tests the best-laid plans like the Chili Bowl.

"There's so many great guys," he says. "It's like going to an all-star game, an all-star event. I mean, you are racing against the best."

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