Stewart enjoying view from atop Chase standings
That's what the 2002 championship team has done this season, and it's why Stewart owns a commanding 75-point lead in the standings with just six races to go.
Normally, 75 points is a heartbeat -- surmountable in just one race. But with the swagger the Joe Gibbs-owned team enters each weekend with, and better yet the high it leaves each weekend with, 75 points might as well be the daunting 268-point lead Stewart would own under the old, pre-playoff points system.
"If we can keep running in the top five, that's what we need to do," Stewart said. "[But], like I've always told people, there's no guarantees."
Sunday at Kansas Speedway, Stewart posted his sixth top-five finish in his last 10 races -- more amazingly, his 15th top-10 in 16 races. Most importantly, his fourth-place finish in Kansas marked his third top-10 finish in the four-race-old playoffs. Certainly, with five drivers separated by 17 points in Stewart's rearview mirror, there are a number of contenders lying in wait. But none have a shot as long as Stewart keeps cruising.
"You want to be the guy that everybody is looking at," Stewart said. "If they're not looking at you, they're not worried about you. You want them paying attention to what you're doing. You want them to feel like you're the one they have to gauge off of. All that is, is a huge compliment to your race team when you're in a situation like that."
Perhaps the geatest testament to Stewart's dominance this season is how well the No. 20 crew has responded to adversity.
Early in the season, Stewart rode consecutive finishes of 26th, 31st and 33rd down to 14th in the points standings. It raised questions of alarm from outside of the organization. Within, there was only laughter.
With that classic nonchalance that has come to replace what used to be anger and frustration, Stewart blew off the mini-slump and promised a turnaround. Stewart and crew chief Greg Zipadelli orchestrated three straight top-10 finishes, including two runner-up efforts, in the three races following the skid and, all of a sudden, the team was a force once again.
In another four weeks, the rest of the Nextel Cup Series would come to learn just how much of a force. Stewart rode a seven-race span that included five victories to the top of the points standings and what seemed a sure rush of momentum to his second title.
That's when adversity struck again. With the Chase racers performing so well in the first two Chase events, Stewart's 18th-place finish at Dover, Del., sent him falling four spots out of the lead to fifth in the standings. Again, the questions came from outside.
Of course, they were nonsense. One 18th-place finish does not a slump make. Even with the Chase racers performing so well, it would take more hiccups than that to silence Stewart and Co. And, like clockwork, the team bounced back with a second-place finish at Talladega, Ala. That effort not only put Stewart back in the points lead, but gave him some breathing room from everybody except Ryan Newman, who trailed by just four points.
Even on Sunday there was some resilience needed. The altnernator belt busted under Stewart's hood midway through the race and the No. 20 car's primary battery slowly lost power. The crew rushed to switch to the backup and Stewart was forced to run the rest of the race sans fans to conserve power. As he crossed the finish line, Stewart said the secondary battery was losing power, too.
"I am really happy to salvage a fourth out of this," Stewart said. "We really weren't that good all day. We got up front up there and got track position."
That track position was enough to solidify a strong day. Even better, a strong points showing. Sunday's fourth-place run, on a day when Newman stumbled to a 23rd-place finish, now has Stewart with a comfortable lead. The championship is in his hands to win or lose -- which is something he welcomes, believing his hunger for another trophy will carry him through.
"You never stop wanting to win, for sure," Stewart said. "I think with the controversy we had in our season in 2002, I'm real hungry to win one with a year like we're having this year where we're all having a great time and we're all having fun. I guarantee you, if we win this one it would be 10 times sweeter than winning the one we won in 2002."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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