Stewart Gaining Needed Momentum

Friday, June 13th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) _ Nearly halfway through the season, Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart is finally gaining some momentum.

Stewart has been known as a second-half guy _ a driver who gets better as the season wears on. That's the way it was last year, when he rallied to win his first NASCAR title.

If he wants another championship this year, it's going to take a lot of momentum.

Going into the Sirius Satellite Radio 400 on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, Stewart is 13th in the standings, trailing series leader Matt Kenseth by a formidable 540 points.

But with 22 of 36 races left, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet is starting to roll.

``It's was a long time coming,'' said Stewart, who got his first victory of the season last Sunday at Pocono Raceway

That followed a fourth-place finish at Dover International Speedway that could easily have been a win.

With the dominant car all day at Dover, Stewart was penalized for being inches outside his pit box on a stop. He made up a lost lap and salvaged a fourth-place finish.

In the last two races, Stewart has jumped seven positions in the series standings. Still, he can't help but think of what might have been.

He got off to an uncharacteristically fast start with four top-10 finishes in the first five races and was second in the standings, just 57 points behind Kenseth. After that, the problems began.

Stewart went seven races with only one finish better than 25th _ a sixth in Martinsville, Va. There were finishes of 41st, 41st and 40th _ a result of engine problems and a crash.

``We've been running well,'' Stewart said. ``We've had better cars than we've ever had, better engines and the best bodies we've ever had on our race cars. It was just a matter of everything falling into place, finally.

``When you go out and lead the laps that we led at Charlotte, run as hard as we did at Dover, and look back at how we ran in The Winston and at California _ you look at all those places where we were doing our job, but we just didn't have the luck on our side.''

Stewart said he and his team ``knew in our hearts and minds that it was just a matter of time before it finally turned back around in our favor.''

He has had some success on Michigan's two-mile, high-banked oval, winning twice _ once in his Cup car and the once in the IROC series.

In April, Stewart was the class of the field at California Speedway _ Michigan's sister track. He led three times for 100 laps before engine failure ended his day after 128 and left him 41st.

Despite the poor result at the track he calls ``Michigan West,'' the performance before the engine problem is a confidence booster here.

``Oh Yeah,'' Stewart said. ``Our aero program has come a long way since the beginning of the year, and I feel like we've got cars that are good and competitive on the two-mile tracks and the mile-and-a-half tracks.

``Our day at California might have been a short one, but it showed what we're capable of. We've learned a lot since then, in terms of reliability, and found some more horsepower along the way. So, I think we're fully capable of running just as strongly at Michigan as we did at California, but this time, all day long.''