- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Even in a busy offseason, NASCARSprint Cup champion Tony Stewart is squeezing in time for some dirt-track racing at the Chili Bowl.

After a surprising late run to his third championship, Stewart reorganized his Sprint Cup team by bringing in new crew chief Steve Addington and luring back former crew chief Greg Zipadelli to be his competition director.

So, instead of going to Australia to race for a third straight offseason, he stayed closer to home to get prepared to defend his title.

With all that business to tend to, there was still time for a little fun _ namely, the Rumble in Fort Wayne back home in Indiana and the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla. Stewart was going through qualifying Wednesday for the Chili Bowl main event Saturday on a quarter-mile, indoor track.

In between, he’s flying to Florida to do testing for the Daytona 500.

“Obviously, with the changes that we had with the Cup team, we needed to be around a little more than we were last year,” Stewart said in a telephone interview.

“So, we stayed home. And if you’re going to stay home, then there’s two things that we’re definitely going to hit and that’s going to Fort Wayne and running before New Year’s and then you’re going to come to the Chili Bowl.”

A two-time champion, Stewart is back for the first time since failing to defend his Golden Driller trophy in 2008. There are three nights of qualifying to get everyone lined up for their shot Saturday, whether that’s a direct spot in the main event or needing a series of strong finishes to get in that night.

Stewart first raced in the Chili Bowl in 1993, when he took over Jeff Gordon’s ride. He says he remembers leading on the final lap of a preliminary race, only to make a mistake and fall to 14th place at the finish line.

“I honestly thought I was going to get fired after the first race that I ran,” Stewart said.

Instead, he got another chance and has turned in a series of strong performances over the years in Tulsa _ winning it in 2002 and 2007 _ and he comes back whenever he can.

“It’s kind of a combination of things, in all reality. As drivers, this is one of the biggest races of the year,” Stewart said. “You’ve got over 260 cars that are running this week. It’s a tough field of cars and drivers and it’s the biggest Midget race of the year.

“Then once you get aside from that, kind of on the personal side, this is about the only time all year that you get all these different guys, your buddies from different parts of the country, it’s about the only time you ever get around each other.”

NASCAR Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also is in the field, and sharing a plane with Stewart to and from Daytona. There’s also a star-studded cast from the World of Outlaws, USAC and other series.

“These kind of are special events. You don’t get points for it. It’s just bragging rights,” Stewart said. “What we do with the Cup series, it’s a lot of work but I enjoy it. It’s fun doing that too.

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