Stewart looking to continue restrictor-plate roll

Updated: September 30, 2005, 9:54 PM ET
Associated Press

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- As his rivals worked on their cars, Tony Stewart retreated to his motorhome to relax. Barefoot and in a pair of shorts, Stewart showed no worries Friday at Talladega Superspeedway despite losing his spot on top of the points standings a week ago.

"I don't feel like we're really in a catch-up mode," Stewart said. "We had our bad week and even with that, we're only 23 points behind. We could take the points lead back this weekend very easily."

Stewart had a rare poor run last weekend in Dover, Del., finishing 18th to fall off the top of Nextel Cup leaderboard for the first time in eight weeks. He's now tied with Greg Biffle for fifth in the Chase for the Nextel Cup standings, but only trails new leader Jimmie Johnson by 23 points.

Still, he heads into the UAW-Ford 500 on Sunday as an obvious favorite, showing up at the track in the same Chevrolet he drove to a dominating victory at Daytona, Fla., in July when he led all but nine of the 160 laps.

He qualified fourth at 188.570 mph, behind Elliott Sadler's fast lap of 189.260.

Talladega and Daytona are the only two tracks in NASCAR that require horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates and Stewart has shown a sudden knack for excelling at them. He's led 260 of 557 laps this season at the three plate races and has an average finish of third.

He finally scored his Daytona victory, but is still searching at Talladega -- although he does have four runner-up finishes.

Stewart is so comfortable these days at plate races, that he's changed the strategy he used earlier in his career when he purposely lagged at the back of the field in an effort to avoid the inevitable big wreck that wipes out half the field.

Stewart said he enjoyed that strategy, joking Friday that it allowed him to "put one hand on the roll bar and drive with one hand for half the race. I get my drink bottle out when I get thirsty driving down the backstretch and drive with my knee until I get the straw in my mouth."

But experience has taught Stewart to do what his car is capable of. If he can mix it up at the front of the pack, he'll go for it regardless of what stage of the race it is. And if the handling of his car is off, he's content to sit back and wait for the right time to make it.

"I think we've got a good sense of when it's time to go and then it's just a matter of getting with the right people," Stewart said.

Among the "right people" Stewart will be looking to draft with will likely be Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Although neither is among the 10 drivers racing for the championship, both are still battling for wins this season and should be factors on Sunday.

Earnhardt is the defending race winner -- remember, it briefly moved him into the points lead last season until he was docked 25 points for cursing during his Victory Lane interview -- and he leads all active drivers with five Talladega wins.

Gordon, meanwhile, won here in April and has four Talladega wins. Gordon also won the season-opening Daytona 500.

But with teammate Johnson eligible for the title, Gordon said Sunday may be the day he is forced to help Johnson to his first restrictor-plate win. Johnson has been a dutiful understudy before, pushing Gordon to several of his plate wins.

"I would love to see Jimmie get in position where I could get behind him and help him all I can. I am going to work as hard as I can to get myself into that position," Gordon said. "He certainly has helped me plenty of times, and I want those guys to win the championship and I'm going to do everything that I can to help them."

Mark Martin is the only driver among the top 10 with a win at Talladega, doing it in 1995 and '97. His Roush Racing teammate Carl Edwards has the least amount of experience here -- he's got just two starts with a best finish of 32nd.

Biffle, another Roush driver, was unusually encouraged after a short practice run Friday. He also hasn't had much success at Talladega, with a career-best finish of 13th scored here in April.

Like Stewart, Biffle took a hit in the standings last week in Dover, falling from second to tied for fifth.

"I was real nervous about coming down here, this is not our strong suit for sure," Biffle said. "The car is driving really good, the car feels fast. I just have a good feeling about this race car, so I'm much happier now."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press