Tony Stewart has some unfinished business to take care of in Chicago.
One year ago, Stewart started on the pole at Chicagoland Speedway and led a race-high 80 laps before finishing second to Ryan Newman. Stewart had the fastest car on the track in the closing laps, but three late-race cautions stalled his surge to the front. He was running third when Kevin Harvick ran out of gas on the final lap. It wasn't the result Stewart was looking for, but it was a step up from his third-place effort in 2002.
This weekend didn't start well for the #20 Home Depot team -- Stewart ran through some oil and crashed during practice on Friday morning. The team quickly readied the back-up car and Stewart laid down the 10th fastest lap.
Stewart likes the smooth racing surface at Chicagoland and says that a second groove has started to come in at the three-year-old facility.
"I think you can pass anywhere, really," Stewart explained. "If you get a guy that misses the bottom of the corner and he bobbles, you can get around him. I honestly think the groove will move up a little bit this year to where it'll be a little wider and you'll have more room to get a run on a guy. But as the tires wear out and grip goes away, drivers will make mistakes and a car's handling will become more important."
Stewart hasn't always been dominant on 1.5-mile tracks during his career, but he nailed six top-5 finishes, including a win at Lowe's Motor Speedway, in nine races at the 1.5-mile circuits in 2003. He followed up his second-place finish at Chicagoland with a fourth-place effort at its near-twin - Kansas Speedway three months later.
The #20 Home Depot team started the 2004 season strong on the 1.5- mile tracks, including a third-place finish in Las Vegas, the third event of the season.
"For years we kind of struggled at the mile-and-a-half ovals, but it seemed that last year we kind of progressed a lot," said crew chief Greg Zipadelli. "Las Vegas was a pretty good example of that, but we've been kind of hit or miss since then. Chicago's a good opportunity to get back on track."
Chicagoland is the 18th points race of 2004 and marks the halfway point of the season. More importantly for the #20 team, there are nine races left before the "Chase for the Championship". Stewart is fourth in the standings and is a virtual lock to be in the top-10 for the final 10-race shootout.
That is as long as he can control his temper.
When Stewart got in a post-race altercation with Brian Vickers in Sonoma, there was fear in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp that Stewart may face a suspension. In the end NASCAR, handed down a fine, probation and a 25-point penalty, but no suspension. Had Stewart been forced to sit out a race and lost the 160 points he earned with a fifth place finish at Daytona the following week, he would be in 11th place, 502 points out of the lead and likely out of the championship chase.
While the team has been consistent -- Stewart is one of four drivers that have been in the top-10 every week this season -- they are still looking for their first win in 2004. It's the deepest Stewart has gone into a season without a win.
Stewart peeled off three straight top-10 finishes, including a second-place run at Dover in June. He failed to finish better than 15th in three straight races before a fifth-place run at Daytona last Saturday.
Stewart likes the upcoming schedule -- he has wins at five of the next six tracks that the series visits.
"People talk about momentum in this sport and how important it is," Stewart said. "We'd like to create a little bit of our own with a strong run at Chicago. This is typically the point in the season where we excel, and we need to make the most of it. We need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way."
Of the 10 drivers currently in the chase for the championship, only Jeff Gordon had a better average finish last year at the tracks that will make up the final 10-race dash. Stewart already has top-10 finishes at Dover, Lowe's and Atlanta this year and in past years has wins at Homestead, Dover, New Hampshire, Martinsville, Atlanta and Lowe's -- all tracks that the series will visit during the final 10 weeks of the season.
"We take each race one week at a time just like we've done every other season," Stewart said. "You can't be worrying about the points. If you do your job each week and try to win the race, it's like I've always said, the points will take care of themselves - no matter what the format is. If you always try to win, then that means you're always trying to get as many points as possible. I don't know why anyone would go away from that."