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The weather is hot and so is two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart, who's poised to make another second-half surge
AT SOME POINT this Sunday, as Tony Stewart is racing around Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 190 mph in the Allstate 400, he'll look up at his private suite above Turn 2 for a glimpse at the party going on there. When he's racing on his home track, Stewart, a native of nearby Columbus, Ind., never forgets to check on his friends and family members living it up over Turn 2, especially his father, Nelson. And this weekend Dad should have plenty to celebrate because his boy is gathering momentum for a run at another Nextel Cup.
After winning for the first time this season—the USG Sheetrock 400 on July 15 at Chicagoland Speedway—Stewart moved up to sixth in the points standings and is well positioned for a second-half surge, which was how he won his Cup titles in 2002 and '05. Stewart has a total of eight victories in July and August since the summer of 2004, and he attributes that success to the fact that hot weather makes the track slicker. He thrives under those conditions because he grew up racing on the slickest surface of all: dirt. "It's kind of like running sprints and midget cars on dirt," says Stewart. "It just seems like the slicker the tracks are, the better we do."
There's another reason why Stewart will be a driver to watch over the next two months: He's no longer feuding with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin. On July 7, in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, Hamlin was leading the race on Lap 14 when Stewart got into the back of Hamlin's Chevy, causing both cars to wreck. Stewart blamed the incident on Hamlin, who Stewart believed (incorrectly, it turned out) had lifted off the throttle. "He's a young guy, and he wants to be successful," Stewart said, "but I don't know if he knows what the definition of team is."
Team owner Joe Gibbs, who's also coach of the Washington Redskins, certainly does. Worried that the relationship between Stewart and Hamlin was on the verge of collapse, Gibbs paid an unexpected visit to Chicagoland on July 14 and held a 30-minute, closed-door meeting with his drivers. After their boss's locker-room-style speech on the importance of working together as teammates, Stewart and Hamlin emerged telling reporters they were 100% committed to helping one another. And they proceeded to do that.
Before the USG Sheetrock 400, the two shared strategies and setup notes. A day later Stewart ended his 20-race winless streak. More significant, the Gibbs team—winner of two of the last three races—appears to have as much speed and momentum as Hendrick Motorsports, which has won 10 of the 19 races this season but hasn't reached Victory Lane in the last five events. Says Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief, "[We're] carrying it to the second part of the season."
Over the next three weeks the Cup circuit will stop at three of Stewart's favorite tracks: the Brickyard (a win in 2005), Pocono (Pa.) Raceway (average finish in his last three starts: 5.0) and Watkins Glen, N.Y. (three career wins). Sounds like an ideal schedule for NASCAR's foremost Boy of Summer.
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tuesday and Friday.