- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Nearly halfway through the first Chase for the Nextel Cup, Tony Stewart's focused on only one driver.
Never mind that he's sixth in points, 173 out of the top spot with six races to go.
Of the five drivers in front of him, only Kurt Busch has his attention at the moment. As for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Elliott Sadler and Mark Martin, Stewart will only worry about one of them if they supplant Busch atop the standings.
"To be honest, there's only one guy I'm looking at and that's whoever is leading the points that week," Stewart says. "The only number that matters is the difference between us. It doesn't matter if we're 40th in points at 150 back or second in points at 150 back, you've still got to gain those 150 points to get in the lead. It's not really the physical numbers of how many people you've got to pass to get there, it's realistically how many points you have to gain on the guy who's leading to get there."
Back in 2002, Stewart had to pass 42 drivers to claim the Cup title. The thing is, he had an entire season to get to the top after blowing an engine and finishing last in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Six races are but a blip on the radar by comparison, but Stewart says that doesn't matter.
"We're close enough right now in the points that theoretically we could be as high as second in points after Charlotte," he says. "Six weeks to go is a long time. It's not out of reach by any means. Anything can happen in this series from week to week.
"Realistically, you have to take it one day at a time. Something that happens on Friday [during practice and qualifying] can directly impact what happens to you on Sunday. So literally, you have to take these next six weeks one day at a time until the end of the season."
Stewart was in the news plenty at Kansas, first for his pointed comments about NASCAR's punishment of Earnhardt Jr. for cursing, then for his altercation with Mike Bliss following Saturday's Busch Series race. But behind the wheel, Stewart's focus is legendary and it'll surprise no one if he's in top form for Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, a race he won last year.
He led 149 laps in this race last fall and brings the same chassis in search of a repeat at a track where he always seems a threat to win. In the spring, when the Coca-Cola 600 starts in the heat of late afternoon and ends under the lights, the changing conditions can play havoc with a team's setup.
But this race will be run entirely at night and with cooler temperatures in the forecast, handling conditions shouldn't change a lot. Stewart, though, will be prepared for any scenario.
"It's temperature sensitive, and depending upon when we practice and what time of day we make our runs, you kind of have to plan ahead for knowing what the track is going to do," Stewart says. "We'll watch it, paying attention to what time the practices are and we'll set up [the car up] accordingly. If the car's not driving perfect in practice that doesn't mean it's bad, because you know the track is going to cool off. You don't want to adjust a whole lot because you might overcompensate for a condition that's not even going to be there when the race starts. So, you really have to plan ahead."
One thing Stewart can't seemingly prepare for are the decisions made by NASCAR's leadership. He's astounded that Junior lost points for cursing on national TV and made his thoughts well known at Kansas, saying drivers are "pawns on a chessboard. We don't make the big moves. We're just sacrificial lambs so to speak.
"They have their way of explaining to you very quickly that you can be replaced very, very easily in this sport no matter how popular you are," Stewart says of NASCAR. "My favorite quote of how this series is [is], 'It is what it is.' That's the easiest way to sum it up."
Years ago, Stewart's frustration bubbled over and rumors would swirl that he was headed back to the IRL, where he won a championship before making NASCAR his full-time job. Such talk has faded away and Stewart admits that, while frustrated at times, things could certainly be a whole lot worse.
"At the end of the day I still get a paycheck and still have a job that I thoroughly enjoy," he said. "I guess I've come to the realization that I've learned what my role is here. Every other series that I was a part of, the drivers had a lot of input and the officials really worked with them. At this level, it's done in a totally different [manner]. You realize it doesn't matter what you opinion is. They don't care about your opinion.
"I think that's why this series has been as successful as it is too, because they've stuck to their core organizing skills. This formula they've had over 50-plus years has been pretty successful. So I guess I'm not as frustrated as I used to be because I've realized that's partly why it's gotten where it is because they've done it their way and not listened to everybody else who has come and gone throughout the series."
And Stewart's not alone in being occasionally frustrated at this time of the season. A grind that began with testing back in January still has six weeks remaining and tempers are wearing thin throughout the garage, which is customary.
For his part, Stewart figures to be as refreshed as can be expected when he reaches Lowe's Motor Speedway on Thursday. From Kansas, Stewart flew to his native Indiana on Sunday night and planned on spending Monday and Tuesday working on a 10-acre lake he's having built.
"Everybody has one or two things they really enjoy doing," Stewart says. "At this time in the season, that's what every driver is really probably trying to do is the one or two things they enjoy doing or trying to get that balance in the week so they can get away from everything for a couple of days."
A week ago, Stewart attended Earnhardt Jr.'s birthday party one day, staged a benefit concert for charity the next night, made a public relations appearance and ran both the Busch and Cup races. It was a fun week, but it took a toll.
"Your body is still like a gas tank whether you're having fun or not," he says. "You can go a little longer if you're having fun doing it. But there's still a point where you finally run out of gas. ... It's when you feel like you're 'Stretch Armstrong' where somebody grabs this arm and somebody grabs that arm and the next thing you know your arms are 20 feet apart from each other. So that's the part where it starts getting hectic is when you've got different groups pulling you in different directions at the same time."
This week, though, Stewart was alone with a piece of heavy construction equipment and his thoughts. And that could prove to be bad news for the competition.
"I'm kind of weird I guess," Stewart says. "When I bought the house I grew up in years ago, the first thing I did was spend a week-and-a-half straight working on a race shop that my dad and I race go-karts out of and never even touched the house.
"It's kind of the same thing out there. I've not done anything to the house. All I've done is worry about making a really killer fishing lake out there. We've had construction crews out there for three months now working on this lake. When they know I'm coming home, they don't book a guy to come in. They always leave a spot open and I'll work whatever piece of machinery they need me to work on. That's a good enough release for me. That's like a vacation for me to be able to do that."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.