Stewart, Johnson Return to Dover


Friday, May 30th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


DOVER, Del. (AP) _ Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson are happy to be at Dover International Speedway, where they figure to be among the drivers to beat Sunday.

A victory by Johnson would be a luxury. For Stewart, it's a case of win or come close in the MBNA 400 if there is to be any chance for him to repeat as Winston Cup champion.

``Every team looks at the calendar and hopes that the tracks they ran well at previously will be the same ones that they can be contenders on again,'' said Johnson, victorious the last two weeks and a winner twice last year at Dover. ``We knew that Lowe's Motor Speedway was one of those tracks. With the success we've had at Dover, we have that same mind-set.''

Johnson could join teammate and car owner Jeff Gordon, David Pearson and Rusty Wallace and as the only drivers to win three straight races on The Monster Mile.

``It's cool having your name in the record books,'' Johnson said. ``Winston Cup racing is so competitive now that it's really hard to imagine having the opportunity to be included with them.''

Last Sunday night, Johnson became the fifth driver in the same year to win both the non-points NASCAR all-star race and Winston Cup's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's.

While Johnson was busy celebrating, Stewart and his team were trying to figure out what went wrong this time. Defense of his first NASCAR title has been a disaster for Stewart, who dominated the first part of the Coca-Cola 600 until a sick engine relegated him to a 40th-place finish.

``We're coming up on a string of tracks where we run well,'' said Stewart, who swept Dover's races in 2000. ``If we're going to make any kind of run back into the top 10 in points, then this is the time.''

Accidents and mechanical failures have been the norm for Stewart this season. It's been so bad, that he has lost 512 points in the last seven races despite leading 179 laps. He once was as high as second in the series standings, but is now 20th, 569 points behind leader Matt Kenseth after 12 of 36 races.

``We don't have time to wait any longer,'' Stewart said. ``We just need to get everything we can get for the rest of the year.''

With a worst finish of 11th in eight Dover races, he figures to be formidable again. But Stewart knows there are no guarantees for him or Johnson.

``If you just assume that you're going to be good, then that's when you're going to get beat because guys are going to make changes and they're going to come back with better cars than they left here with,'' Stewart said.

The high-banked concrete Dover oval is the treacherous track on which Johnson really established himself as a star. He won both races last year and wound up with three victories overall to tie Stewart's 1999 record for the most by a rookie.

``Hopefully, we'll still have the magic here and be able to pull into Victory Lane again,'' said Johnson, who will be driving one of his favorite Chevrolets. ``It's the same one that we dominated with here last year.''

But his task won't be easy in the MBNA 400. Gordon and Wallace should be strong as usual. Stewart teammate Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth also are formidable here.

Gordon doesn't care who owns the car. On the track, he views Johnson an imposing obstacle to victory.

``They have momentum on their side,'' Gordon said. ``I'm sure their confidence is sky-high right now. But we've had a lot of success here.''

Martin is three-time winner on the track, and Labonte and Earnhardt have won here in both Busch and Cup cars. Kenseth has won in Busch competition and come close in his Cup car.