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Tuesday, June 3, 2003
Updated: June 4, 12:26 PM ET
Title defense off to bumpy start

By Jerry Bonkowski
Special to ESPN.com

Jerry Bonkowski Winning the Winston Cup championship can seem at times like building a house.

You lay the foundation, slowly raise the walls and finally, when you are crowned champ, you move in to a rather classy abode in a select neighborhood. Call it Champion's Row.

Tony Stewart accomplished all that last year by winning his first Winston Cup title. But when it came time to add on to his championship house in 2003 and make room for many more title trophies to come, Stewart's plans were delayed by misfortune and mistakes, much like a room addition can be delayed by such things as weather, financing problems and poor workmanship.

Consider what happened to Stewart in the span between the fifth race of the season at Darlington, S.C., and two weeks ago at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C.

Stewart left Darlington in second-place in the standings. Seven races later, after finishing 40th at Charlotte -- which was his third consecutive finish of 40th or lower in as many races -- Stewart had dropped to a dismal and season-low 20th-place in the rankings, including a freefall that saw him drop 13 places in just three races.

Had he not had a plethora of mechanical problems and other on-track instances that caused his stock to plummet, Stewart would likely still be hovering around second-place today, still hot on the heels of points leader Matt Kenseth.

But with his fourth-place finish this past Sunday at Dover, Del., which allowed him to earn back four of the places he lost in recent weeks, Stewart, now 16th in the standings heading into Sunday's Pocono 500, may have finally begun rehabbing and renovating the dismal first third of the season that he suffered through.

Dover was only the second top-10 finish for Stewart since Darlington (he was sixth at Martinsville, Va.). Each of his other six finishes was 26th or lower in that span.

But enough of the bad news. Dover could very well serve as a precursor to Stewart getting right back into the championship chase, particularly with races coming up this month at Pocono, Michigan, and Sonoma (Calif.). It's been in the month of June that Stewart has earned more than one-quarter -- four, to be exact -- of his 15 career Winston Cup victories.

STEWART'S RECENT STRUGGLES
Venue Desc. Finish Prob. pts Actual points
Bristol 10th before accident    26 134 85
Texas 11th before engine failure    34 130 61
Talladega Ninth before accident    25 138 88
Martinsville Finished sixth, led 11 laps    6 155 155
California Leading before engine failure    41 185 50
Richmond 23rd before accident    41 94 40
Charlotte Leading before engine trouble    40 185 48
Average totals:
30th (average finish)
1,021 (probable points)
527 (actual points)
Probable points lost: 494

Source: Joe Gibbs Racing

"It just seems like this is the part of the season where we get going," Stewart said. "If we're going to make any kind of run back into the top-10 in points, then this is the time. We don't have time to wait any longer. We have to make the most of our races starting right now. You need to make the most of it every week, but last week is past and we need to make the most of this weekend and every weekend after that. We just need to get everything we can get for the rest of the year."

Two of Stewart's career wins in June have been at Dover, which has obviously come and gone. But the other two are at races still to come this month, one each at Michigan and Sonoma, Calif. The only missing link in that chain is a win at Pocono, which you can be sure the No. 20 team will be seeking with an even greater vigilance than usual this Sunday.

Stewart's record at the venerable 2-mile uniquely-shaped Pennsylvania tri-oval includes just about everything but a win. He has seven top-10s in eight career Pocono starts, including a third- and fourth-place finish, two sixth-place and three seventh-place showings.

"With Pocono being as big as it is, you just have to really work hard and know how much momentum plays a role on that race track," Stewart said. "If you're a little bit off, you're a bunch off. If there's a guy who can get all three of those corners right, then that's the guy who's going to win the race.

"If you're down on power at Pocono you're a mid-pack car at best. You need power to go down that front straightaway, and if you don't have it, you're done."

And while he's enjoyed a fair amount of success at Pocono, that first win there has remained elusive. Perhaps that's why Stewart tested for two days at Pocono early last week, right after the Coca-Cola 600. He and crew chief Greg Zipadelli are bound and determined to go from also-rans to winners, perhaps as early as this Sunday.

"We've always run well at Pocono, but we've always been between about a fourth- or seventh-place car there," Zipadelli said. "We've never really been any better than that. I think we finished third one time. We've run okay, but we've never gone there and led a lot of laps. Tony is good enough to get around that place, and our cars are good enough to win. We're excited to go back with the motor package our motor room has come up with. With our new Monte Carlo, it gave us a chance to get some good flat-track experience with that car because we ran a lot of laps. So, that's why we tested.

"We just wanted to get some laps at a big place like that, and hopefully when we come back for the race, we'll challenge for a win instead of being in that fourth- to 10th-place spot we've been in."

And maybe get back to making that championship house even bigger.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.