Anyone who thought it was a fluke that Tony Stewart made the Chase for the Championship in his first year as a Sprint Cup owner-driver had plenty of evidence early this year.
An accident in April at Texas started a slide that dropped him from ninth to 18th in points, and that was where he still was after the May 8 race at Darlington.
But just as he did in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart has used the late spring and early summer to make things right for him and the No. 14 Chevrolet.
Now Stewart is ninth in the standings and in position to make another run at his third championship. He had four consecutive top-10 finishes, including second at New Hampshire and third at Pocono, before last week's big multicar wreck at Daytona relegated him to 25th. But even that didn't hurt him much because so many other contenders crashed out as well.
Just don't ask him to explain the big reason for the turnaround.
"I don't know that there's been one particular thing that has really changed it all for us," said Stewart, who has won twice at Chicagoland Speedway, site of tonight's LifeLock.com 400. "We've just been working hard. It's kind of like last year. We had a great first half of the season, then just kind of fell off.”
Last year at this time, Stewart put together a stretch of 10 top-five finishes (including three victories) in 13 races to make him one of the championship favorites.
About the same time the Chase started, the team slumped and Stewart wound up sixth in points.
"I think it's kind of worked the opposite way this year so far," Stewart, 39, said on the weekly NASCAR teleconference. "We just weren't finding the things to make the car happy. As time is going on, every week we're just learning a little more about what to do to get the feel in the car that I like. It's been working out."
But there are eight races before the Chase begins, and Stewart is only 120 points ahead of 13th-place Mark Martin.
"I'm still not really comfortable where we're at in the points standings right now, but we're definitely making gains for sure," he said.
Stewart is making gains while having to worry about factors of no concern to the other 42 drivers in the garage. He's still trying to secure sponsorship, not only for himself but for teammate Ryan Newman.
Newman's No. 39 ride still needs sponsorship for this year, and Stewart is losing Old Spice as a sponsor after the season. Those financial questions have killed any talk of adding another car.
"I would say there's probably a zero percent chance we'll expand to a third team for next year," Stewart said. "We're still trying to fill the void. … We're talking to a lot of great people."
The funding questions remain, but there should be no questions about Stewart's ability to get his team into the Chase again.