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Stewart happy to finally be on top

Driver overcomes start to lead points race for first time in four-year career.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 13, 2002

Driver overcomes start to lead points race for first time in four-year career.

Tony Stewart's Winston Cup title drive has come a long way since it began eight months ago -- on Interstate 95.

The season-opening Daytona 500 was running at full speed when Stewart, whose engine blew after two laps, turned onto the highway entrance ramp for a mind-clearing drive home to Charlotte, N.C. His rank in the standings after one event: last.

With six to go, he is first.

"There was no way I ever could have dreamed, after Daytona, that we would be where we are today," said Stewart, who leads veteran Mark Martin by 72 points. "It just shows that you can't give up."

In his first three Winston Cup seasons, Stewart established a pattern of starting slow and finishing strong. He appeared to turn that around during Speed Weeks 2002, winning the Budweiser Shootout, an IROC race and finishing second in his 125-mile qualifier. But when the engine in his No. 20 Pontiac blew two laps into the Daytona 500, it signaled a familiar beginning.

"When we left Daytona, we were devastated," Stewart said. "We've always known that the first eight races of the year are where we get ourselves at such a deficit that we never can recover from it for the remainder of the season. Starting the first race of the year, leaving there 43rd in the points, it was falling right into that pattern again. To be leading now, we're so excited."

This is the first time in his four-year career Stewart has led. The title chase remains the closest since NASCAR began using the current points system in 1975 -- the top five are separated by 172 -- but Stewart is the new favorite.

Of the six remaining tracks, Stewart has won at four: Martinsville, Atlanta, Phoenix and Homestead. He also has performed well at Lowe's Motor Speedway, site of today's UAW-GM Quality 500. Because qualifying was rained out, Stewart starts from the pole.

"I am excited, looking at the remainder of the schedule and looking at tracks that we're going to and the success that we've had at all of those," he said. "That part is positive. ... We can't really take a lot of time to think about the negatives of it because it's stuff that really isn't in our control."

Earlier this season, Stewart lost control of his temper. Frustrated that he did not win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his home track, Stewart punched a photographer after the race. The outburst cost him $60,000 in fines and landed him on probation with NASCAR and primary sponsor Home Depot.

His team never faltered.

"There have been peaks and a lot of valleys to go through this year and not once has this team ever given up, not once have they ever shown signs of backing down or giving up in any way, shape or form," said Stewart, who has offset seven races in which he failed to finish with three victories and 13 top fives.

Crew chief Greg Zipadelli believes the team's ability to overcome adversity will help it handle the pressure of a close championship battle.

"We have surely ridden that emotional roller coaster as a team this year and in the last three years," said Zipadelli, who also serves as team psychologist and motivator. "So, I think if any team can deal with it, this team can."

Stewart has won championships before, including the 1997 Indy Racing League title. In 1995, he became the only driver to win championships in the U.S. Auto Club's national Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown series in the same season. He will draw on that experience in the next six weeks.

"A Winston Cup championship would definitely be the highlight of my career," he said. "But to me, it's still about basics. The best attitude that we can take going into those six races is, "We've got to win a couple of these.'

"I think I'm just trying to be realistic about the position we're in and trying to keep our focus where it needs to be. As much as we'd like to be celebrating our first chance at leading the Winston Cup point standings, we've got a lot of work to do to try to hold on to that right now."

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