Top-10 seems to be Stewart's home depot
By Tim Packman

NEW YORK (Dec. 3, 2000) Tony Stewart appears to have found a home sitting at the NASCAR Winston Cup Series top-10 banquet table.

The driver of the No. 20 The Home Depot Pontiac has finished fourth and sixth in the points, respectively, in his two seasons on the circuit. Though he did drop two positions from last year, he finished 2000 with two Bud Pole Awards, a circuit-leading six victories, 12 top-5s, 23 top-10s and $3.2 million in winnings.

His points finish wasn't decided until the season's last race at Atlanta. Going into the race he was fifth, coming off a victory at Homestead, and was 37 points in front of Ricky Rudd.

But a lap 195 accident knocked Stewart out of the 325-lap event; Rudd, meantime, finished 24th, enabling him to conclude the year five points ahead of Stewart.

Stewart will walk across the stage at the Waldorf-Astoria on Friday night and pocket a check for $408,000 - the bonus from series sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. for his sixth-place finish.

Prior to his career in NASCAR, Stewart had a resume strewn with success in different levels of racing. The 29-year-old native of Indiana is not a newcomer to such achievements. Some may say it has become expected of him.

In 1995, he was the USAC Triple Crown winner. In '96, he moved up to the IRL and was its rookie-of-the-year. The next year he was crowned the division's champion. During the '96 and '97 seasons, he was also starting to compete in NASCAR events, driving in nine NASCAR Busch Series events the first year and five the next.

In 1998, the open-wheel champion competed in 22 NBS events before moving to NWCS competition in the following year. He earned two poles and set a record for most victories by a freshman with three, had 12 top-5s and 20 top-10s on his way to rookie-of-the-year honors. It looked like he was on a path to another successful run through an additional level of racing.

Some spoke of him as the early season favorite for the NASCAR 2000 championship. After all, he was a winner in almost every other form of racing he competed in, and now had a full season of NWCS racing under his belt. A look at his quick success in the IRL series was mentioned.

He started this year with a 17th-place finish in the Daytona 500; it was to be his lowest points position all year.

>From there he jumped to ninth in the points after Rockingham, then to his season high of fourth after Las Vegas. It appeared the alleged "sophomore jinx" of the sporting world was going to pass by the successful Stewart.

The following event at Atlanta he finished 34th and dropped to eighth. Five events later after three top-10s, a 34th and 42nd-place finishes he was down to 13th. The next 10 races produced three victories, two back-to-back, and eight top-10s. He moved up to sixth in the standings, 285 out of first. The top spot belonged to Bobby Labonte, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate.

If Stewart was going to make a run toward the top, he was going to have to turn it up a notch. The talent was there, the equipment and resources were there, and he had 15 races left in the season to accomplish his task.

Over that stretch he put together an impressive run of three victories - two back-to-back again - six top-5s and 10 top-10s, but he still fluctuated between fifth and sixth. He had two of his DNFs during that final run, including the Atlanta race.

Finishing sixth isn't bad in such a competitive series. There are many drivers who would relish being even close to a top-10 spot just once in their careers.

Stewart, on the other hand, hasn't known a different place to sit at the banquet but the prestigious top-10 table.

Staying there is the real challenge.