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Road course veteran Tony Stewart heating up

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Jun. 21, 2013

When things finally go right for Tony Stewart, they seem only to get better.

It’s taken 15 races for Stewart to finally break into the top 10 in the Sprint Cup Series standings, but now that he has it appears only good things await – or at least good tracks.

Stewart is in prime position to capitalize on his recent run of strong performances in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

A former IndyCar Series champion, Stewart has adjusted well to NASCAR’s road courses since his transition and owns seven road-course victories, including two at Sonoma.

Between Sonoma and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, Stewart has made 28 career starts with 12 top-five, 19 top-10 finishes, and has led 307 laps.

Qualifying for Sunday’s race is 2:05 p.m. Saturday.

“I’ve always liked Sonoma. It’s really a driver’s track. It’s tough to make your car drive perfect all day,” said Stewart.

“You can have a really good car, but it’s going to slide around and you’re going to struggle for grip, and that’s what makes it so fun. You have to do the work behind the steering wheel.”

Stewart has been doing plenty of work behind of wheel of late.

Stewart was 24th in the series standings after 11 races this season and appeared to be in danger of missing the Chase for the Cup.

However, he’s finished seventh, first, fourth and fifth over the last four races, including his first win of the season at Dover, Del.

Getting into the top 10 – which guarantees a Chase berth – is one thing, but Stewart is well aware there is far more work ahead before the season’s 26th race – the cutoff to make the Chase.

“It’s definitely been gratifying for sure. The thing is that, ‘A,’ we have to stay there and ‘B,’ we got to be consistent. Getting there has been a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s been very trying to get to this point, but it just shows how quickly you can get things turned around.

“There are other teams that can make gains like that, too. It’s a constant moving target. You have to constantly keep up with it and I’m proud of our group.”

There are no celebrations to be had just yet, however.

“The hard thing is you can’t stop and they can’t stop with that intensity,” he said. “We all have to keep working hard and keep that intensity up to get through the rest of the year.”

Stewart was 14th-fastest in Friday’s first practice session and 16-fastest in the final practice session.

“No drama so far. Nice, smooth session,” Stewart said of the first practice.

“We need a little bit of speed, but this is better than we’ve taken off in practice in the past here so somewhat encouraged by it.”

While many questioned whether Stewart could quickly put together a string of performances that could resurrect his Chase chances, Clint Bowyer said once Stewart won at Dover, the dynamic changed.

“What was it four weeks ago, (the media) were hammering him to the point where he was fighting back, snapping back a little bit,” Bowyer said.

“He wins, now he’s running the top-five ever since. He’s one to beat. He’ll be one of the cars you’ll have to beat to win the race on Sunday.”



Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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