Winning Is Everything

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The top four drivers still vying for this year's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship are separated by only 72 points, the closest four-way scramble with only one race remaining in modern NASCAR history.

Blah, blah, blah.

For Tony Stewart and the #20 Home Depot Racing Team, their title hopes - however much on the ropes - were officially dashed following their 17th place finish last Sunday at Darlington (S.C.). So while the focus heading into this Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be on who will lay claim to this year's championship, the focus for Stewart and Co. will be ending the year on a high note.

In their five previous seasons of Nextel Cup competition, the #20 team has never finished lower than seventh in the season-ending point standings. They're assured of at least seventh this year, but they could climb as high as fourth if fifth-place Mark Martin and fourth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. have mutually abysmal races while Stewart finishes well enough to gain a minimum of 114 points.

Stewart, however, has never been very interested in any kinds of what-if scenarios.

Stewart's world is as black and white as the checkered flags he's been chasing since he first wheeled a go-kart at the age of seven in Westport, Ind. There are no grey areas. And so he goes into Sunday's Ford 400 at the 1.5-mile Homestead oval with only one thing on his mind - winning.

In 211 Nextel Cup starts dating back to Feb. 14, 1999, Stewart has won 19 times. He has two wins in 2004 - Chicagoland on July 11 and Warkins Glen (N.Y.) on Aug. 15. In the 14 races since the win at The Glen, the #20 team has sought career win #20, with the closest finishes being back-to-back sixth-place results at Dover (Del.) and Talladega (Ala.) on Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, respectively. Three other top-10s have also been had in this 10-race chase for the championship, but none yielded any trophies. Only wins do that - the only thing The Home Depot Racing Team truly wants this Sunday at Homestead.

"You have to treat it just like any other race," Stewart said. "Obviously, where you're at in the point standings after Homestead is where you've finished for the season. But you can't treat the race any differently. You just have to go out there and do the best you can and not take too many unnecessary chances. You have to be cautiously aggressive. You have to race hard to get everything you can get, but with the thought in the back of your mind being that you can't do anything that's going to jeopardize you finishing the race. Taking a chance to gain one position might cost you 20 or 30 spots if it doesn't work."

"Trust me, I'd much rather have the pressure of being the point leader, or even remotely close to the point leader. But being where we are does take a little bit of that edge off. Still, I'd much rather be right there in the middle of the championship knowing that we've got a shot of winning it. Pressure is a part of this business, and we're all used to it by now."

With the Chase almost complete, what does Stewart think of the new playoff-style points format?

"It seemed to do what NASCAR wanted it to do and that's raise the level of fan interest," he said. "I haven't really had an opinion about this whole chase since the season began and I really don't have one now. This is the point structure we're racing under, it's the same for everybody, and at the end somebody's going to win a championship. It is what it is."

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