- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Throughout his racing career, Tony Stewart has made it a practice of trying to be in the right place at the right time … which normally means Victory Lane.
But after 12 races in 2004, Stewart is uncharacteristically still without even one win this season.
That winless streak could change in Sunday's MBNA 400 "A Salute to Heroes" because, for him, racing and winning or finishing strong at Dover International Speedway usually means being in the right place at the right time.
Consider Stewart's record at DIS: In 10 career Cup starts, he's won twice, has six other top-five finishes, one seventh place and one 11th place showing. He's never finished any lower -- and what's more, has an incredible average finish per race of fourth place.
What's more, Stewart is the highest-ranking driver currently in the Nextel Cup standings without a win, entering Sunday's event in fifth place, which is a far cry from where he was at this point a year ago, when he was a dismal 20th in the standings. In fact, he's one of only four drivers who has remained in the top-10 throughout the entire first third of this season (others are last year's champion, Matt Kenseth, current points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Elliott Sadler).
Plus, there's one other thing to consider that makes Stewart one of the favorites to win Sunday: Of his 17 career Cup wins, all but three have come in June or later. It's right around this time that he invariably gets his season going. And, with 14 races left to determine the 10 finalists for NASCAR's 10-race "Chase to the Championship," Stewart arguably couldn't pick a much better place than Dover to get his first win and start building a cushion for the so-called "Chase."
"We just haven't been to victory lane yet, and that's what everybody's looking at," said Stewart, whose best finishes this season have been second in the season-opening Daytona 500, third at Las Vegas and fourth at Richmond. "But we're not worried about it, especially with the way the points system is now. I'm not totally satisfied with it, but I don't think anyone is totally satisfied with the way their season is going.
"You always want to be better than what you are. But it's not like the new points system has changed the way we're racing. We take each race one week at a time just like we've done every other season. You can't be worrying about the points. If you do your job each week and try to win the race, it's like I've always said, the points will take care of themselves -- no matter what the format is."
Despite what he says about the points taking care of themselves, the 2002 Winston Cup champion is right in the hunt for the inaugural Nextel Cup championship. He currently trails Earnhardt by 211 points, and is just 67 points behind fourth place Jeff Gordon, while 33 points ahead of sixth place holder and teammate Bobby Labonte.
Stewart earned both is victories at DIS in 2000, sweeping the two annual events there en route to being the winningest driver that season with six total triumphs.
"You had to play the chess match of tire management, and that's what made it so fun for us and so exciting for the fans," said Stewart, who is coming off a ninth-place finish in last Sunday's grueling Coca-Cola 600. "You couldn't just start on the point and run away from the field. You had to play the chess match.
"You might've had a guy who was in a hurry at the beginning of a run and passed three or four cars, but at the end of that run he'd get passed by those same three or four cars, and maybe a couple more because he had used up his tires. The fans got to see a lot of racing, and hopefully with this new tire compound, they'll get to see the kind of racing we had back in 2000."
What makes Dover special for Stewart, and unique for all drivers, is its high-banked configuration. It has oftentimes been compared to an all-concrete, high-banked version of Bristol Motor Speedway. But while Stewart says DIS is one of the most unique tracks on the Cup circuit, it's no Bristol in his mind.
"It's a one-off track," said Stewart, who has not only raced Cup cars at Bristol, he also has competed in Busch Series cars and even Indy cars. "You can't go anywhere in the country and find another track like Dover. I like the one-off tracks. I like the places that aren't copies off of somebody else's racetrack."
As for comparing Dover to Bristol, he added, "I don't think so, from the standpoint that at Bristol the groove is always along the bottom, all day long. At Dover, there are times when I run up at the top of the track, there are times I run in the middle of the track, and there are times when I run at the bottom of the track. It has more characteristics like Michigan, where depending on how your car is driving, you can move around on the racetrack and help yourself out."
But because of the high speeds, high banking and high temperatures drivers have to endure during the course of the 400-mile race, finishing at Dover, let alone winning, is a task unto itself.
"It's really physical," Stewart concedes. "The banking, the bumps -- it all takes its toll on your body after a race.
"I normally sleep pretty good that night after the race is over. It's probably a little tougher on your body than the majority of the other races we run, but that's also why it feels so good when you win there, because you know it's a tough race."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
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