Stewart rolling into Chicago

What a difference a month can make. Leaving Pocono four weeks ago, Tony Stewart was coming off a 29th-place finish, was 10th in the point standings and hadn't visited victory lane in more than 10 months. He was visibly disappointed with ...

What a difference a month can make.

Leaving Pocono four weeks ago, Tony Stewart was coming off a 29th-place finish, was 10th in the point standings and hadn't visited victory lane in more than 10 months. He was visibly disappointed with his performance.

But with three straight top-two finishes, including back-to-back wins at Sonoma and Daytona in the past two weeks, Stewart has vaulted to third in the standings and trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 136 points. He has picked up more points in the past 10 races than any other driver on the circuit and is in the best position at this point in the season of his seven-year career.

Stewart hopes to continue his roll this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in the USG Sheetrock 400 on Sunday (3:00 p.m. Eastern on NBC). Stewart is the defending champion at Chicagoland after picking up his first win of the season there last July.

"We've got momentum on our side and momentum goes a long way in this series," admitted Stewart, who led the most laps in each of the past three races. "It's definitely momentum that we need, but we're realists too. We just have to keep building on that momentum and hope we don't have any disasters in the next nine weeks so that we can stay up there in the points and try to win a championship."

Stewart will have his work cut out for him after wrecking his primary car in a crash during practice on Friday morning. He is expected to miss qualifying and take a provisional to make the field on Sunday.

Stewart has built a quick history with the four-year-old Chicagoland Speedway. In addition to his win last year, Stewart finished third in 2002 and finished second from the pole in 2003. He hopes to carry the momentum that the team has built over the past few weeks into another good finish this week.

"If we can have a good run this weekend at Chicago, I think it's really going to give the team a huge, huge boost," said Stewart, who led 160 of 267 laps and beat Johnson by nearly three seconds one year ago. "Obviously, the morale of the team is real high right now with the last two weeks. But at the same time, if we can go out and have a good weekend at Chicago - that's a scenario where Roush and Hendrick teams have dominated so far - if we could be the third team to get into the mix this weekend, it would help us out a bunch."

Stewart was happy to get the monkey off his back and get back to victory lane in Sonoma, but feels that the team's second-place effort at Michigan was the springboard to the success they have had recently.

"Probably the most substantial weekend was running second at Michigan, believe it or not," said Stewart, who extended his seven-year streak of winning at least one race. "It's probably more substantial than winning the last two weeks. This weekend is going to tell us a lot if we're actually making the gains or not. I felt like we took a huge step forward at Michigan."

Stewart knows as well as any competitor in the garage that a streak -- one way or the other -- can make or break a team's season. Stewart was seventh in the standings at this point in 2002. He grabbed 10 top-10 finishes in the final 15 races to win the championship.

"Obviously, this year it's a different challenge than the last couple of years," Stewart said. "You've got the Roush teams and the Hendrick teams that are heads above everybody else in the mile-and-a-half to 2-mile programs, so we're hoping Chicagoland is a place where some of the stuff we learned at Michigan will help us out. If we can have a top-five finish and get into that mix of Roush and Hendrick cars, it's going to be a very huge weekend for us - even if we don't win."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson