Stewart New King Of Sonoma?

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Tony Stewart doesn’t consider himself among the best road racers the NASCAR Winston Cup Series has to offer.

He said he knows he’s got a bit of catching up to do to the likes of Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd and Robby Gordon, but he’s getting there. One needs to look only at Stewart’s victory in last year’s Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Sears Point Raceway to see that.

Stewart battled from behind, then took advantage of Robby Gordon’s tussle with Kevin Harvick and put himself in victory lane for the first time at the two-mile road course. In fact, it was the first time in five tries that Stewart had ever cracked the top-five in a road course race – at either Sears Point or Watkins Glen.

Although he went on to finish 26th at Watkins Glen last August, Stewart is beginning to learn the ends and outs of road racing, of which the Winston Cup Series runs two weekends a year, including this weekend’s event at Sears Point.

“I don’t know if I’d say I’m in the ‘elite’ category,” said Stewart, currently seven in the Winston Cup standings, 229 points behind leader Sterling Marlin. “We’ve always run good at Sears Point. We’ve always run in and round the Top 5, even going back to my rookie year, and then last year we won.

“There is just something about Sears Point. We really run well out there. I don’t know if that puts us in an elite group or not. It’s just a track that we feel like we have a shot at winning at every time we go.”

Like at Dover. Or Homestead. Or Richmond. Or just about any other track on the Winston Cup circuit.

Stewart finished 15th at Sears Point in his rookie season in 1999, then went on to garner a 10th-place showing in 2000. He finished sixth at Watkins Glen in his rookie season and then sixth again in 2000, so he’s been right there knocking on the door just about every time out on a road course.

But then Stewart’s experience with road courses goes back a ways.

“I raced on road courses in go-karts when I was younger,” Stewart said. “So, I’ve driven road courses before. During my rookie year before the Sears Point race, I went out to the Bob Bondurant Driving School and had Chris Cook as my instructor.

“He was really good at knowing what I needed to learn to drive a Cup car on a road course. He’d run a couple of Busch races, so he really knew what areas I needed to focus on. Having him as an instructor gave me things to think about before we went to Sonoma and Watkins Glen. That gave me the mindset that I could be good on the road courses.”
Stewart also has an ace in the hole when it comes to the road courses. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli came from the northeast part of the country and the Busch North Series and the NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series, both of whom run at Watkins Glen on a consistent basis.

“Greg’s got some experience in both of those divisions, and that helps a lot,” Stewart said. “Obviously, he’s been with a Cup team (Roush Racing’s No. 99 team) in the past that’s run road courses.

He’s got a really good ability to adapt quickly, like I do in some cases behind the wheel. I’m just fortunate to have a guy like that who can adapt so quickly to different styles of racing.”

If Stewart is to make it two victories in a row at Sears Point Sunday, he’ll have to deal with the likes of Jeff Gordon, who had a three-race winning streak at Sears Point snapped last year.

Gordon has yet to win a race this year, but he’ll certainly be among the favorites to take the checkered flag. Last year’s race showed that Gordon was indeed beatable at Sears Point.

”You’d be surprised at how many mistakes I made out there that you didn’t see (last year),” Gordon said. “I made mistakes in front of a couple of different guys and it cost me. Tony had a good car in 2000 and got knocked out and didn’t show what he was capable of, but he did last year and won it.”

“We didn’t feel like he (Gordon) was invincible, we just felt like he was consistent and fast,” Stewart said. “We were plenty quick to beat him (in 2000) but we just didn’t make it there. I was sick in the car and when we crashed, it took the wind out of my sails.”

Qualifying for the Dodge/Save Mart 350 is set for 5:05 p.m. ET Friday. Rusty Wallace holds the track qualifying record of 99.309 mph, set in 2000.

The field will take the green flag for the race Sunday at 3p.m. ET.

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