Talladega win has Stewart thinking 2 in a row

Published 10:31 am Wednesday, October 8, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Tony Stewart had victory in sight with a five-second lead and three laps to go in his last race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

When his worn-out right front tire couldn’t last the final four miles, Stewart lost yet another race in a season defined by heartbreaking setbacks.

“That’s definitely the one that sticks out the most in my mind,” he said of the Coca-Cola 600 loss in May.

The two-time Cup champion returns to Lowe’s this weekend looking for redemption and fresh off his first win of the season — a dramatic victory Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. His track record shows that Stewart could very well make it two in a row.

One of the streakiest drivers in NASCAR, Stewart has a knack for grabbing momentum and turning it into multiple wins.

He won five of seven races during a stretch of his 2005 championship season, back-to-back events in late 2006, and three of four midway through last year. Buoyed by the results from last month’s test at Lowe’s and a strong record at the Concord track, Stewart is looking forward to Saturday night more than any of the remaining six races.

“We’ve had a lot of success at all these tracks coming up, but I think the way that we have ran the last three races at Charlotte, we’re pretty excited about it,” he said. “I feel like we’ve got a shot at this weekend’s race. If we can do what we’ve been doing, we’ve got just as good a shot as anybody else.”

And that could be just what it takes to get Stewart back into the championship hunt.

His win at Talladega surged him four spots in the standings to seventh, but he’s still a distant 203 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. It’s a deep hole to climb out of, but past personal history is preventing Stewart from conceding just yet.

Stewart was third in the standings as the 1995 USAC Silver Crown Championship wound down, and he was only included in the title conversation because he was mathematically still in contention. When favorites Jack Hewitt and Dave Darland had problems in the final race, Stewart won the championship by two points.

“When you use that experience, knowing that as long as you’re mathematically in the hunt, you still have a shot,” he said. “I’ve always said, if you win races, the points will take care of itself. We could still by theory win the next six races in a row and still not win the point championship.

“For us it’s about going out and doing what we can do, and the other 11 drivers are going to dictate their fates, too.”

But making himself a factor in this race will require Stewart and his Joe Gibbs Racing team to not let his impending departure from the No. 20 car distract them over the final six weeks of the season.

Stewart is leaving JGR at the end of this year, his 10th with the team, to become an owner-driver for Stewart-Haas Racing. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli has admitted the impending move — and the buildup as Stewart made his decision to leave — have at times been a distraction.

Many have wondered whether Stewart, who has been busy hiring personnel and searching for sponsors, has been focused on winning races.

Zipadelli has defended his crew, which has weathered many storms in its decade working with Stewart.

“My guys, they’ve done a good job all year of trying to stay focused doing their job, trying to prepare good race cars,” he said. “Hopefully (Talladega) will give us a little momentum for the last few races, and we can get ourselves back in the top five where I think we belong.”

So the driver doesn’t think the title is out of reach yet, but the crew chief is shooting for a top-five finish? Has Zippy given up on the title?

“I’m not. I’m just realistic,” he said. “When we were 11th last week, we headed in the right direction. We’re seventh now, so let’s try to get ourselves in the top five. Let’s try to get ourselves with a couple races to go where we can mathematically have a chance for the championship, and we adjust our goals as we go.

“Honestly, we need to work on getting ourselves in the top five, then go race those guys. I would hope a win gets everybody going. After the year we’ve had, I hope it gives everybody a shot in the arm.”