Tony Stewart ready to bring the heat

Stewart will start from the 20th position Sunday -- he won from the 22nd slot last year -- and the weather forecast should be to his liking. Temperatures are predicted to be almost 15 degrees warmer than during first practices and qualifying Friday.

Sprint cars remain a central theme in Stewart's career, business and leisure activities, and they ironically were at the center of his undoing last season. His Cup season ended with 15 races remaining on Aug. 5 when he broke his leg in a sprint car accident at Southern Iowa Speedway, requiring multiple surgeries, insertion of a titanium rod and ongoing physical rehabilitation that has not eliminated a pronounced limp.

Still, he conducted a secret test in a sprint car last week, returning to that style of racing for the first time. He was unapologetic and eager for more.

Stewart has been mostly inconsistent through the first 12 races of the Sprint Cup season, producing encouraging top-5 finishes in consecutive weeks at Bristol and Fontana but just two top-10s in the past seven races. He has led just 74 laps this season, all at Texas, where he started from the pole, and is 22nd in driver points.

Queries about how much the injury affected performance tend to turn Stewart surly, but Zipadelli agreed that "there's been some adjusting, but I don't think it's hindered him a whole lot."

"I don't believe it's kept him from going faster," Zipadelli said. "I think the biggest thing is we lost a lot of offseason testing where we could have figured things out. Other guys had those opportunities."

Compounding the challenges in Stewart's comeback attempt has been a companywide inconsistency through the early weeks. Kevin Harvick has won twice and been a weekly factor, and Kurt Busch also put himself in position for a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth with a victory, but the company has experienced numerous mechanical problems.

Stewart said before the season that he expected his entire roster, with the exception of second-year Cup driver Patrick, to qualify for the Chase, and, with a new win-centric Cup points system putting him one checkered flag from the postseason, he doesn't seem concerned. Stewart has won at least one race every season of his Cup career.

"I don't think there is ever a point where, especially with this format, that you get panicked, because you don't have to be stellar in the points, you just have to get a win," he said. "Our track record shows that we can get it. It's just a matter of when is it going to happen."

Judging by the calendar, likely fairly soon.

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