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Stewart strong at Talladega, just not strong enough

4/29/2006

Winning at Talladega Superspeedway requires friends. Lately, that's about the only on-track asset Tony Stewart has lacked.

In 14 tries, Stewart has never won at the 2.66-mile behemoth of a track, but he has come home runner-up five times. With an average finish of 12th, there's little disputing that he has the mechanical backing and the driving talent to get the job done. He just needs the friends in the end, something the two-time champion is hoping he'll finally be able to make.

"Talladega is a track where you can't do anything on your own," said Stewart, who ranks fifth in the standings -- tied for his career-high points ranking through eight races. "You have to strictly rely on what everybody else around you is doing. It's still not real racing when somebody else has to go with you and somebody else can dictate how you run. If you don't ever have anybody go with you all day, you never have a shot at winning."

Stewart has one of the most powerful drafting partners in the sport in Dale Earnhardt Jr. But during Junior's streak of five superspeedway wins in seven races, it was usually Michael Waltrip hooked up with Junior at the end. Stewart, to date, has found himself left out in the cold.

"We haven't won there," he said, "but look at how many second-place finishes we've had. Our finishing average is pretty high -- higher than most for the amount of races we've run there. So I'm pretty satisfied with the way we've run there."

Satisfied with the past, but not satisfied to settle for perpetual bridesmaid. And Stewart has good reason to believe things could be different this year. Only once before in his career has Stewart ranked as high as fifth at this point in the season. That was in 2002, the only other year Stewart had a victory this early in the season.

"We're in a lot better shape than we were last year at this time," Stewart said.

"Last year," added crew chief Greg Zipadelli, "I think if you look, we ran well at a lot of races earlier. We just made some mistakes, some things were costly to us. We didn't win as early as we should have last year. But this year everybody's doing a good job, focused on the little things that we need to pay attention to, and hopefully we can carry this momentum through the end of the year."

With a better pace going into Talladega, the defending champ might find himself surrounded by more friendly competitors. At that point, it'll be up to Stewart to take care of business.

"You have to take the opportunities as they come, but with those opportunities you have to make a very quick decision," Stewart said. "You've got to think, 'What happens if I try this and it doesn't work? What are the ramifications going to be?' You don't have the luxury of sitting down and taking the time to analyze the situation. You've got to make a split-second decision. A lot of times it'll work, but there are times when the decision that you made doesn't work. But once you've committed yourself to doing something, there's not much you can do about it."

Team 20 is confident letting Stewart make those decisions, though.

"Tony has been on since Daytona," Zipadelli said. "He's been like a machine. He's been fun. He's really intense about his race car, giving good feedback."

And it's not like he's working with a handicap. His rigs are fast.

"I think it goes back to the guys at the shop being able to build good race cars week in and week out," Zipadelli said. "… I know we have, if not the best, one of the best drivers in the sport right now, or maybe ever to be here [in the sport]. But if we can't give him what he wants, what he needs, none of us are going to do very well."

So far, Stewart has done real well at Talladega. His quest for a victory, well that's just part of his championship desire to win every time out. But it's not like he's disappointed with his 'Dega record.

"You can say the track hasn't been kind to me with as many second-place finishes as we've had, but there are 41 guys who didn't have it as good as we had it those days," Stewart said. "There have been a lot of days where we ran second and it was as good as a win for us. Last year's spring race was a perfect example. We knew we didn't have the best car, but we ended up with a second-place finish. That was the best we could do and we left the track with smiles on our faces."

This year, though, the cars have been too good for a win not to be the benchmark of a good afternoon drive.

"You still have -- at the end of the day, you still have to take it one week at a time right now," Stewart said. "… You know, I'm happy with where we're at. I'm glad we've got such a great start to the season and hope we can maintain that. Our team is working hard towards that obviously."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.