Denied at Kansas, Stewart dials in on Talladega

10/6/2007 - NASCAR

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The skies cleared just enough last weekend to ruin Tony Stewart's day.

He was a rain-shortened winner, at least for a couple of hours. The dreaded restart came and the good times were over.

A cut tire caused a crashed ride. Stewart showed his famous temper, throwing his helmet inside the car. Who could blame him?

When the rain came, Stewart thought he would leave Kansas Speedway as the man to beat in the Chase. It was his "what if" moment of the season.

If the downpour had ended the race, Stewart would have won and left Kansas as the points leader. Only two of the 12 Chase contenders would have been within 100 points of him.

Not to be. Stewart went to Kansas in second place, only two points out of the top spot. He left in fourth place, 117 points back.

Now he comes to Talladega needing a victory, or at least a top-5 finish, to make up lost ground from his reversal of fortune in the American heartland.

"All we can do is go for broke," Stewart said Saturday. "Even if we win the race the next seven weeks in a row, it's no guarantee we will close the gap. In a way, it takes the pressure off us. But we can't lose points now."

Stewart's skills as a driver are unquestioned. Everyone knows he's capable of winning and getting back to the top, but racing talent alone isn't always enough at Talladega.

All too often, luck overrides skill on the restrictor-plate monster. Stewart saw last week that luck can go both ways in one race.

No driver can win at Talladega without other drivers helping him, a situation that goes against everything Stewart believes as a racer.

"I dislike anything where you have to rely on somebody else," Stewart said. "It's not real racing when somebody else has to go with you. To me, what you and your team do should be what it's all about."

That's not enough at Talladega and Daytona. Drivers have to help each other to move forward in the draft. Two cars in line are faster than one, three are faster than two, and so on.

"I don't like having to have a guy behind you or in front of you dictate what you do and where you go," Stewart said. "It's very nerve-wracking when you can't plan your moves unless you know what the guy behind you or in front of you is going to do."

As frustrating as it is, Stewart now is one of the best at playing the restrictor-plate game.

It took seven seasons, but Stewart earned his first restrictor-plate victory in 2005 at Daytona before following it up a year later with a second win in the Pepsi 400.

He's winless at Talladega, but he knows the view right behind the winner. Stewart finished second in three of the last five races on the 2.6-mile oval. He has six runner-up showings here in the last six years.

Tony Stewart

I dislike anything where you have to rely on somebody else. It's not real racing when somebody else has to go with you.

-- Tony Stewart

If there's one guy who hates to finish second, it's Stewart. But knowing danger lurks on every lap at Talladega, second isn't so bad.

"Second place is like a win here because it's so hard to be in the right place at the right time," Stewart said. "A few of those races I was pushing Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. to a win. As volatile as Talladega can be, to finish second six times is something I'm pretty proud of."

Whether that transfers Sunday is hard to say. This Talladega event is all new for every competitor. It's the first Car of Tomorrow race on a restrictor-plate track.

The COT makes the wild-card aspect of Talladega even more unpredictable, but Stewart's team has something figured out. The No. 20 Chevrolet was the fastest car in both practice sessions Friday.

Practice speeds can be misleading at Talladega, depending on who is pushing you in the draft and when they do it. But Carl Edwards said Stewart didn't need any help.

"The 20 was really good by himself," Edwards said. "He looked like he had a ton of horsepower. If we don't get a lot faster, we won't catch him."

Stewart will start 11th Sunday, which means nothing. Drivers with guaranteed spots weren't in qualifying trim. And how a car reacts alone on the track has little to do with how it runs in a large pack of cars during the race.

Stewart knows he has a car capable of winning the race. He also knows he still can win the championship, despite having to catch Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to get there.

But this is Talladega, a place to expect the unexpected. The goal isn't as much making up ground as it is avoiding disaster.

"The standings can change dramatically here in one lap," Stewart said.

"This race carries more variables that are out of your control than any other race," he said. "You can't really predict anything."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.