Stewart Gets Back On Track

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Don’t look now, but Tony Stewart has gotten into a “stalking mode.”

After weeks of early-season frustration, the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac - who many picked to win the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship - is beginning to make his move. And it may not be long before Stewart puts himself in position to make a run at the top of the points standings.

Stewart’s fourth-place finish in Sunday’s NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California - combined with his second-place run last week at Talladega and his seventh-place performance the previous race at Martinsville - has him primed and ready to go on a serious roll in the month of May, one that could vault him to or near the top of the heap.

Since a mediocre finish at Texas on April 1, Stewart has moved from 17th in the standings to ninth. He’s a mere 44 points out of sixth place and now trails Winston Cup leader Dale Jarrett by 234 points heading into this Saturday’s race at Richmond.

It might have taken him and the Home Depot team a while to establish themselves in 2001, but everybody’s starting to look over their shoulders now and it’s Stewart they see coming.

“It’s about that time of year again,” Stewart said. “We’re just getting more and more competitive every week. The tires have been the one variable that’s changed this year. These new compounds are a lot better and a lot safer for us, but it’s just been a matter of finding the proper setup for them. It’s looks like we’re finally getting caught up.”

Stewart has had a lot of catching up to do this season from the opening week. He finished 36th in the Daytona 500 after flipping end-over-end down the backstretch, part of an 18-car melee that marred the season-opener.

He rebounded with a fourth-place finish at Rockingham and a 12th-place run at Las Vegas, only to finish 27th at Atlanta, 16th at Darlington, 25th at Bristol and 23rd at Texas. After seven races, Stewart found himself 330 points behind Jarrett and going nowhere but down.

He was in position to win at Talladega before Bobby Hamilton surprised him on the final lap when he got by him to take the checkered flag. Sunday’s race at California wasn’t a perfect run for the Home Depot team by any means, and they earned every bit of their top-five finish.

“We made a lot of changes,” he said. “We pulled a spring rubber out of the right rear and made a lot of air pressure adjustments, track bar adjustments, wedge adjustments – we worked on the car all day.

“That’s one of the best things about (crew chief) Greg (Zipadelli). He’s always making sure that when our car rolls out to the line for the race that we’ve got a lot of adjustability in it to where if we need to make any changes, we’ve got a car that can do it.

“The pit stops were awesome, too. We either gained track position or track time on every stop. That’s what it takes. We didn’t have a great car, but the guys got us in a position to where we could fight at the end. When we did get that car decent, we went from there.”

Stewart still has yet to make it to victory lane this season after six trips there a year ago. Richmond International Raceway, a track where he’s enjoyed a decent amount of success in his brief Winston Cup career, could very well be the place to break the brief drought. He won there in the fall of 1999.

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