Tony Stewart ready to bring the heat

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DOVER, Del. -- Standing under the cover of his hauler, staring out at Turn 1, Tony Stewart was unenthusiastic about finishing Sprint Cup practice with the second-fastest time. He didn't much care for the weather, either. The quibbles were interconnected.

With gray clouds hovering low over Dover International Speedway on Friday, the high concrete banks of the 1-mile track had not been sufficiently baked and rendered slippery. They just weren't right yet.

And unless those conditions changed, Smoke Season could lose its opening weekend. And, in a season already beset by many unforeseen variables, the three-time Dover winner greatly needs a return to normalcy.

"I would like to see it really get hot and slick," he said. "It's cool and has a lot of grip right now. Everybody can go fast when it's like that."

For Stewart, it could be a case of regaining his traction as everyone else struggles for theirs. It's been a recurring theme in his 16-year Cup career.

Stewart passed Juan Pablo Montoya to lead the final three laps in winning at Dover last June, then finished fourth on the 2.5-mile triangularity of Pocono, fifth on the 2-mile Michigan oval, second at Daytona in a restrictor-plate race and fourth on the relatively flat 2.5-mile Indianapolis track, vaulting him from 20th to 11th in points in nine weeks.

"It was big, and it definitely gave us some momentum," Stewart said. "We finished seventh the week before at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600, won at Dover and then finished in the top five at Pocono and Michigan. It was four straight weeks of momentum at four totally different racetracks."

Stewart has been remarkable at generating summer momentum no matter the venue. Twenty-three of his 48 Sprint Cup wins have been amassed between Memorial Day and Labor Day, seven each in June and August, nine in July.

"Through the middle part of the year, that's when the racetracks are hotter, warmer, and grooves open up," said Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli, who was Stewart's crew chief for 10 seasons. "[Tracks] aren't any faster; they're slower, and [tires] actually fall off more and you have to take care of your tires more. The biggest thing is the cars seem to move around more."

All of which harks back to Stewart's formative years winning USAC championships on slick Midwestern dirt tracks. Even today, said Danica Patrick's crew chief Tony Gibson, Stewart "drives off the right front tire like a sprint car."

"I'm sure it's his upbringing," Zipadelli said of Stewart's comfort with summer conditions. "He's raced on racetracks that are like that his whole life with dirt stuff. I think he's been able to adapt himself. When the racetracks at the beginning of the year have more grip and the track temperatures are cooler and nobody has been on them, sun hasn't been beating down on them for six months, it just seems like it's easier for everybody to drive. And then you lose your advantage."

Summer conditions, Stewart said, force drivers to actually drive. His confidence is high in that scenario.

"When guys can't hold it wide open and they can't sit there on high-grip tracks and they actually have to drive these things -- that's when we start getting fast," he said.

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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