- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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When Tony Stewart was just starting out as a Winston Cup driver several years ago, he approached virtually every racetrack like a kid who didn't want to eat his vegetables. He took a cautious approach, and those he didn't like, he'd spit at them in disgust.
Martinsville Raceway was a good example. He absolutely hated the place. Of course, once he won there in fall 2000, his attitude spun 180 degrees. Now, he absolutely loves the place.
It's somewhat the same way for Stewart at Richmond International Raceway, site of Saturday night's Chevy American Revolution 400. He was not a big fan of the ¾-mile oval at first, but with three career Cup wins -- including his first career Cup triumph in 1999 (the first rookie to win a Cup event since the late Davey Allison did so in 1987) -- and two Craftsman Truck victories, RIR has become one of Stewart's favorite places.
"It just reminded me of some of the shorter tracks that I've run (in sprint cars and midgets)," Stewart recollected. "It had kind of the same feel that quarter-mile tracks did with some of the other cars that I've run with.
"It wasn't a big drastic change. It was like Phoenix the first time I went there. I hadn't been to a 1-mile oval but once in my life, but when I got onto Phoenix, I adjusted and adapted to it really quickly. It was a place where I became very comfortable right away. I had that same feeling when I went to Richmond for the first time with The Home Depot car.
"I think every driver has a track that they go to where they get that same feeling. There are just some places that you go to where you adjust, and it really suits your driving style."
Of his 17 career Cup wins, the most have come at Richmond (three), followed by two wins each at Phoenix, Homestead and Dover. And without any wins in the first 10 races of 2004, Stewart could very well be primed for yet another nighttime triumph at RIR.
But one thing could potentially make him feel as if he's racing at a brand new track Saturday night -- namely the new racing surface that has been installed at RIR. While it has made the track much faster, it also has made the surface slick. While it should prove to be an outstanding surface after it's race-worn in maybe a year from now, Saturday night's race is as unpredictable as the first time Stewart came to RIR.
"I think it's going to be quite a bit different this time than it's been in the past," Stewart said. But it's still Richmond. It's just going to take awhile to where the surface gives up and two-groove racing comes back into the equation. My personal feelings are that we're running a little bit too fast there. Anytime you're running the speeds we're running at a track that small, it makes it more difficult to pass. But that's a factor only time can take care of. Either way, we'll be sure to make the best of it."
Stewart and the rest of the Nextel Cup Series returns to competition after nearly two weeks off. While other drivers enjoyed vacations, Stewart spent his time off in typical fashion: he was off racing his winged sprint car last weekend at Sedalia, Mo., and Knoxville, Iowa. Also in typical Stewart fashion, he displayed the competitiveness he flashes on the Nextel Cup circuit, winning the feature event at Sedalia (his third triumph in four career starts there in its 360 Division), and finishing sixth at Knoxville.
To say the least, Stewart not only had a blast, he was able to get away from some of the recent incidents he's been involved with the last few weeks, as well as the criticism that has been leveled at him by other drivers on the Cup circuit.
"Absolutely (it got his mind off the last few weeks)," he said. "The fans at Sedalia and Knoxville were great. We had huge autograph lines after the races were over and we stayed until everybody who wanted an autograph got an autograph. Everybody who was there left happy and was appreciative that we were there. It was definitely a good getaway after all the garbage we've been receiving the last couple of weeks."
But now it's back to business, and Stewart realizes he's coming into arguably the most important part of the season. With 10 races in the record books, only 16 events remain to determine the final 10-driver field for NASCAR's "Chase for the Championship," which will determine this season's champion.
After dropping from champ in 2002 to a disappointing seventh-place finish last season, Stewart has his sights set on becoming the first-ever Nextel Cup champ. And without even one win thus far this season, he also knows that it's time to get moving if he wants to make sure he's part of the "Chase."
Stewart, who dropped one place in the points after finishing 16th at California two weeks ago, is currently eighth in the Nextel Cup standings, just 32 points out of fifth-place and 169 points behind points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Conversely, Stewart was in 11th-place a year ago this week, more than 330 points behind then-series leader and eventual champion Matt Kenseth. He currently has scored 142 more points this year than he did in the same time frame last season.
And he meets and old friend in Richmond International, even if it has a new face.
"It's really smooth, glass-smooth actually," Stewart said. "I'm not sure I could find a bump if someone paid me to find a bump out there. It's really nice, but the downside to fresh asphalt is that it always makes it hard to pass.
"And on top of that, we're running over a second faster than what we normally run there, so it's going to be that much more difficult to pass. The car becomes more aerodynamically dependent, something you don't normally have at a short track. I'm not sure the racing will be as good as everybody hopes, but the good thing is that as long as the surface holds up throughout the weekend, it'll be a surface that'll last for a very long time and probably only get better with age."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
Richmond didn't start out Tony Stewart's favorite place, but now the Cup star rates it high on his list.