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Tony Stewart aims to stay atop NASCAR's Sprint Cup field

DAYTONA BEACH

Tony Stewart sits in a black director's chair on a live TV set, the latest stop in the defending NASCAR champion's whirlwind day in a whirlwind offseason. • He shot a commercial in London, acted in a sitcom alongside Tim Allen, and sported custom clogs emblazoned with his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. • Now, as he answers the same questions about one of the most remarkable comebacks in racing history, Carl Edwards stands three steps down, watching, waiting for his turn in the spotlight. • Edwards and the rest of the field are still trying to catch Stewart, the 40-year-old Indiana native who twice ruled himself out of contention for the 2011 Sprint Cup title before claiming his third series crown. • Although he has had three months to glow and reflect on the closest championship race in NASCAR history, Stewart still can't articulate how he went from postseason filler to the driver to beat in 2012.

"I can't. I still can't," Stewart said. "I wish I could explain it."

It's easier to explain what went wrong to start last year.

Beginning at Bristol on March 20, he finished outside the top 11 for five straight races — the second-longest drought of his career. Stewart later tallied only four top 10s in an 11-race span, including a 39th-place finish at Sonoma on June 26 that was his worst run since 2008.

He went winless during the regular season, and his streak outside of Victory Lane reached 32 races — the third-longest span of his career.

"Something went wrong every week," Stewart said.

That futility is why he ruled himself out of the championship race twice.

After a ninth-place finish at Michigan on Aug. 21, he said his "stuff is so bad right now that we're wasting one of those 12 spots" in the Chase. When the postseason started four races later, he didn't include himself among the seven drivers he thought had realistic title hopes.

Stewart said his comments weren't a "head fake" to distract opponents or inspire his team. They were the truth — even if his competitors disagreed.

"He might be better than he thinks he is," said Joey Logano, who inherited Stewart's No. 20 ride at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2009.

When the Chase started, Stewart's luck changed. The wrecks and failed pit strategies that plagued him early in the year disappeared. He won the opener at Chicagoland and the next race at New Hampshire.

After finishes outside the top 10 at Dover and Kansas, Stewart closed the Chase with six runs in the top eight. He won three of the final four races, capped by edging Edwards at Homestead to finish tied for first in points and ahead on the tiebreaker (five wins to Edwards' one).

"They hit on something and took off," Edwards said.

The challenge for Stewart will be to carry that momentum into 2012, beginning with a race he has never won.

Of the nine drivers with at least three Cup championships, Stewart is the only one without a Daytona 500 victory. He has won the season-opening Nationwide race at Daytona six of the past seven years and the Cup's July race there three times. He finished second at last week's Budweiser Shootout to Kyle Busch by 0.013 seconds.

Stewart's 0-for-13 in the 500 is inching closer to Dale Earnhardt's run of 19 starts without a victory before he broke through in 1998.

"To me, he's starting to get into that category," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said.

Stewart said he'd, obviously, love to win the Great American Race on Sunday but wouldn't trade any of his three championships for a trip to the winner's circle.

That includes his latest title, which made him the sport's first owner/driver to win the series since 1992.

"We've still been riding that high," Stewart said.

His team began working on a repeat almost immediately after Homestead.

Stewart replaced his crew chief, hiring Steve Addington away from Kurt Busch at Penske less than two weeks later. In December, Stewart brought on his former JGR crew chief Greg Zipadelli as the team's competition director.

With no wife or children, Stewart was able to spend his winter in the car and in the garage.

He knows how close the margin is between first and second and that Edwards and the rest of the field are right behind him, ready to step into the spotlight and steal his throne atop the sport.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com.

Tony Stewart aims to stay atop NASCAR's Sprint Cup field 02/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 11:06pm]

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