If Stewart makes the Chase, watch out

Updated: February 26, 2004, 6:08 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Tony Stewart
Stewart
A new championship system added to the same old Tony Stewart could equal a second Cup title for the the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, but it would all depend on the first 26 races of the year.

Stewart is possibly the best driver in the Cup series at the end of the season. In a system that pits the top 10 racers after 26 events against one another in a 10-race playoff, Stewart just has to make the show to be a favorite to win it all.

Those final 10 tracks are all places where Stewart has enjoyed much success.

Here's the catch: The 2002 champ isn't a lock to be in the top 10 after race No. 26.

"I don't know why we seem to run so much better over the second half of the season, but we just do," said Stewart, who in the past has attributed it to the temperatures at the track and how that usually made for racing conditions that put the racing in the driver's hands. "This should be exciting."

A second-place finish in the Daytona 500 started Stewart's quest off right. A 26th-place finish at North Carolina Speedway slowed that roll. A good showing at Rockingham usually gives drivers a big boost of confidence because many drivers view the event as the true start to the season -- where the guys do some real racing instead of that Daytona drafting.

But missing a top-10 finish at Rockingham for just the third time in 10 tries doesn't have Stewart concerned. Stewart isn't the type to dwell on bad runs -- whether they come in Week 1, 2 or 35.

Still, the race at the Rock has got Stewart focused on making each of these first 26 events count. He's well-aware of his propensity for dominating late in the season, and he doesn't want to be driving for anything less than a title.

"There's obviously a lot of importance on the last 10 races," Stewart said, "but none of that matters if you're not in position to run for a championship (through the first 26 races)."

Tony Stewart
Stewart did lead Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona.

On Sunday, Stewart's day was frustrated by an ill-handling No. 20 Chevrolet. A combination of poor setup strategy and a tire that lost its grip quickly had Stewart scrambling futilely to get the car centered.

"It's a pretty tough battle," he said. "Competition level is so tight there now, whereas in the past it was a little easier to pace yourself and make sure you were saving your tires for a long run. It's a little easier now to burn the tires off. It's very difficult."

Stewart's car started out loose, alterations made it too tight and more changes had it severely loose again. Stewart had trouble gaining speed at the start of runs and keeping speed at the end.

"It seems like there are some teams that have figured out a really good balance in their car to where they're really good at the beginning of a run and they're also good at the end of a run," Stewart said. "There are some teams that are really fast at the beginning of a run, but they fall off after 20 laps. Then there are teams that really don't come on strong until about 40 laps into a run, and for the last half of the run they're really quick compared to the rest of the field.

"It's a big challenge. The tires fall off and the groove moves around. It's a very difficult track to get right. But if you can get your car driving well you can have a pretty good day."

Stewart didn't have the worst of days, but he couldn't find that balance, either.

But Stewart is used to rough starts. The early hiccup usually comes at Daytona, and then Stewart has always bounced back. With three top fives in the last four races at Las Vegas, the schedule favors a quick turnaround.

"Everyone ... thinks they have a shot at winning the championship," Stewart said. "Our team is doing the same thing everybody else is doing. We're all working hard to try to put ourselves in position to run for a championship title like we did two years ago."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.