Stewart doing his best to keep things simple
What exactly does it mean for Tony Stewart to be in the driver's seat on this journey to the 2005 Nextel Cup Championship?
Think about it like this. If Stewart's closest competitor, Ryan Newman, finished seventh in each of the next six Chase races, he would still finish three points short of the title if Stewart maintained a 10th-place average for the duration. Certainly not too much to ask of Stewart, whose season average is a finish of 9.8.
Plus, he's got history on his side. When Stewart won his first Cup title in 2002, he held off Mark Martin, who trailed him by 72 points, by averaging a 10th-place finish to Martin's seventh.
Stewart isn't ready to talk about scenarios, though. True to character, he just wants to race.
"We can't control what they do anyway, so why worry about what they're doing?" he said of other Chasers. "The only thing we can control is what we do. We need to focus 100 percent of our energy on what we're doing and not on what everybody else is doing."
So far, that approach has brought good fortune. Stewart is averaging a finish of 6.5 in four Chase races. And he hopes that Saturday turns out even better at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. In 13 races at Lowe's, Stewart's scored nine top-10 finishes, including a victory in 2003.
Although there have been some changes to the track, Stewart and Co. hope to continue their solid record with some pre-Cup racing practice. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli and Stewart will team up to run Friday night's Busch race.
"It definitely gives us an opportunity to take what we learn from the Busch car and apply it to the Cup car," Stewart said. "Greg will see it first-hand, versus a situation if I was driving for a different team where Greg would learn what the car was doing from what I told him. With Zippy being right there and able to work on both cars, it's something that even though will be hectic and very busy for us, it'll be something we can take advantage of."
Is it enough to make him the favorite, though?
Although Stewart may be a safe bet for a solid finish, Mark Martin has to be the favorite for this weekend's checkered flag. Martin, like fellow Chase racer Jimmie Johnson, has four victories at the suburban Charlotte track and is coming off a gush of momentum after winning the Banquet 400 at Kansas Speedway. Martin is a sentimental favorite and will undoubtedly have a lot of fan support.
"Last Sunday was a great win for this team and Charlotte couldn't come at a better time," Martin said of his favorite racetrack. "We had a good car there in the spring and we got caught up in somebody's wreck late in the race. Hopefully this time we'll be able to avoid that and finish it off. Tony has a pretty good [points] lead on all of us, but it's really tight after that. We just have to keep fighting and see what happens."
Riding the wave
Jimmie Johnson might not be riding a wave of momentum through the 2005 Chase for the Nextel Cup, but he's back on the right track. His eighth-place run last weekend in Kansas eased the hurt from the 31st-place performance the weekend before. And he's got a ton of momentum rolling at Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he's posted seven consecutive top-10 finishes, including three straight wins.
Johnson says that puts a certain amount of pressure on the team to continue the success, but it's nothing compared to the pressure to stay afloat in the points race.
"I've been waiting for our success to slow down there," he said. "I thought it would be that way in the spring. We got off to a slow start but by the end of the night we made the right adjustments and ended up winning the race. Going to Charlotte, there is really only one direction for us to go and that's not winning. If that happens, so be it. But I really feel comfortable and confident about our chances there."
History on their side
Although Martin and Johnson lead all Chase contenders in victories at Lowe's, Rusty Wallace has the most top-five finishes and a respectable two wins at the track.
"We're coming back into Charlotte primed and ready to add even more success to all that we've already enjoyed through the years," Wallace said.
He's got some other history on his side, too.
"With [Dale Jarrett] winning two races ago at Talladega and Mark taking the win at Kansas on Sunday, maybe there's some kind of trend going on for us older guys -- uh, I mean us seasoned veterans -- to be winning the races," Wallace said. "Heck, if that's the case, maybe it's my turn to win this weekend."
Of the Chase contenders, though, Johnson has the best overall history at Lowe's Motor Speedway with four wins, five top-fives and seven top-10s in just eight tries.
Cause for concern
Kurt Busch could win every race from here on out, and collect the automatic five points for leading a lap during each race, and still lose the title if Stewart continues his Chase-race average finish. That's cause for concern. So is Busch's record at Lowe's -- no wins, one top-five, one top-10 in 10 tries. And, yet, neither Busch nor the No. 97 team is panicking.
"It seems like every race during the Chase so far we've had a car capable of winning, but we've either suffered from tire problems or accidents," Busch said. "We have terrific cars for these remaining races, including this week so we're looking for a good run at a track that has not always been our best."
Although Johnson and Stewart have incredibly impressive records at Lowe's, with just five finishes outside the top 10 in a collective 21 tries, Carl Edwards technically has the best average finish at the track.
He's raced there once. And he finished third.
Of course, that gives the glorified rook little confidence. He's never competed in the fall event at Lowe's, and track changes have everyone guessing a little.
"I'm not really sure what to expect but when you have guys like Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart wreck two cars each during the test, it makes me a little nervous," Edwards said. "I think we have a really good car though and I really do like Charlotte."
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.
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- LeBron gets standing ovation in Miami return
- Kobe misses 2nd game in row, cites 'old age'
- Westbrook lifts Durant-less OKC past Spurs
- Wall, Wizards race past struggling Knicks