- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

Tony Stewart is in a zone rarely achieved in NASCAR.

With five victories in the last seven races and his spot in the Nextel Cup playoffs virtually assured, Stewart can take it easy.

Don’t count on it.

“Even though we have that flexibility to relax a bit from knowing that we’re going to make the Chase [for the Cup], we still have the pressure to make sure we’ve done everything we can to be prepared for when the Chase starts,” he said. “We’re pretty much guaranteed to be in, but we don’t want to just settle for being in.

“We want to do what we can to win the championship.”

And in case he forgets, crew chief Greg Zipadelli will be certain to remind him of that. Stewart probably will be on top when NASCAR squeezes the points after 26 races to five-point intervals among the top drivers, who will chase the title over the last 10 events.

His lead is 105 points over Jimmie Johnson heading to Michigan for tomorrow’s GFS Marketplace 400.

“We can’t even think about getting complacent,” said Zipadelli, the only crew chief Stewart has had since his rookie season with Joe Gibbs Racing. “My attitude after last week is we’ve got to work even harder. I want to win more than I did last weekend because it’s the following weekend.”

That was his philosophy after the most coveted victory of Stewart’s seven seasons in NASCAR — when the Hoosier climbed the fence to celebrate at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Last Sunday, Stewart won again, this time on the road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y., further cementing his spot in the Chase.

“It’s real easy to say, ‘Hey, we’re in this thing. We’re OK,’ ” Zipadelli said before the race at the Glen. “We’ve got to keep the intensity, the pressure on ourselves to perform, not slip up, not sit back and let your guard down.”

Every point counts, and for the Home Depot team there is no alternative other than racing as hard as it can each time the rubber meets the road. It has been that way for most of Stewart’s 34 years — from the time he began beating the rest of the kids in go-karts.

Since then, Stewart has won in dirt cars, midgets, sprints and everything else he has driven. He came to the fore as the 1997 IRL champion, and then moved to NASCAR.

Only racing greats Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt showed that sort of versatility. Now, some are comparing Stewart to them.

Even with several years of racing ahead of him, that might be a bit of a stretch. And who would want that kind of pressure anyway?

Stewart doesn’t mind.

“It doesn’t put pressure on me,” he said. “If anything, it’s very flattering.

“Hopefully, I’m one of those guys who can go anywhere. Even if it’s a car I haven’t driven before. I might not be able to win right away, but at least I’m competitive and don’t look like I’ve never driven something like that before.”

He has demonstrated that repeatedly, and his victory Sunday at Watkins Glen leaves him as the unchallenged king of the road courses. It was his fifth win on a serpentine layout, not bad for a kid from Indiana who grew up in the left-turn-only environment of midwestern tracks.

There have been plenty of growing pains and temper tantrums along the way. He was placed on probation Tuesday until the end of the year for hitting another car after the Busch series race Saturday. But nothing seems to hurt his performance.

“This sport is mental,” Zipadelli said of Stewart and the team. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity in the last seven years. But as a group we’ve been able to put things behind us and believe in ourselves and in our driver.”

Given Stewart’s immense talent, that’s not difficult.

He has won 24 times on the world’s premier stock car racing circuit, and was a threat to win virtually every week from 2000 to his championship season of 2002. What followed was a period of consistency with no threat of domination.

Now the domination is back, but Stewart isn’t taking it for granted.

“There are no guarantees that because you’re good one year you should be good the next,” Stewart explained. “If everybody would quit working to get better and you were good, you could just not have to worry about it. You’d be good all the time. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Right now, everything seems to be working, and Zipadelli hopes the opposition doesn’t figure out why Stewart is the favorite far more frequently than anyone else.

“They’re sitting back there where we were eight to 10 weeks ago — trying to figure out how to get our program back on track 100 percent,” he said. “It wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t as good as some of the other guys we were racing.”

Even at its zenith, success quickly can find an abyss. Stewart experienced that last season.

He entered the Chase fourth in readjusted points, just 15 behind leader Jeff Gordon. Stewart qualified well and led 16 laps in New Hampshire. Then he wrecked, and fell 135 points behind.

A real downer?

“Yeah,” Stewart said. “It pretty much ended our Chase 30 of 40 laps into the first race. We really weren’t on the radar screen anymore.”

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