Stewart hopes to stay hot today

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 11, 2005

Tony Stewart has suddenly threatened Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle’s grip on the top two spots in the championship standings.

Stewart has won the last two races, going from one extreme to the other. He dominated the road course at Sonoma and last week he took the checkered at Daytona. In the process, Stewart climbed to third in the standings, 136 behind Johnson in the lead.

If you were able to make it through the entire race Saturday night, you are better than me. I guess I am getting old, because I just couldn’t stay awake for the nearly 2 a.m. The combination of a late start time, a dark room, and a comfortable sofa worked against me.

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Stewart’s hot streak could not be coming in a better stretch of season. He is the defending race winner at Chicago, the next stop on the schedule.

Can he make it three in a row? He leads all drivers in laps lead at this track and has finished first, second, and third in the last three races at Chicago. Stewart has also won at four of the next five tracks on the schedule. At this juncture, Stewart is all but assured a spot in the chase, but winning races is the name of the game and he could be headed toward a torrid streak.

Chicagoland Speedway is one of the 1.5 mile cookie-cutter ovals that the top drivers usually dominate. Nothing will change this week, the winner will come from the top four or five drivers. Look for Johnson, Biffle, Jeff Gordon, and Kurt Busch to be contenders this week.

This is only the fifth time that NASCAR has run at this track, and my pick to win the race is the driver that won the first two races here, Kevin Harvick. Harvick is currently on the outside looking in for the chase and a win this weekend would certainly better his chances of making the cut.

Moves continue to be made in what could be one of the biggest years in driver changes. Roush Racing announced this week that Jamie McMurray has been signed to drive the no. 6 car starting in 2007. The plan is for McMurray to fulfill his contract with Chip Ganassi by remaining in the no. 42 car in 2006 and move to Roush in 2007.

Don’t be surprised to see Ganassi go ahead and release McMurray from his contract and allow him to move for the 2006 season.

If Ganassi chooses to keep McMurray, look for Ricky Craven to fill the seat for the 2006 season.

Roger Penske is still looking for a driver for the coveted no.2 ride in 2006. His first choice, Martin Truex, Jr., announced at Daytona last week that he had signed a contract extension with DEI and move to cup in the no. 1 Bass Pro Shops car next year. Now that Truex and McMurray are off the market, the new driver of the no. 2 is anyone’s guess.

The most mentioned candidate is Casey Mears. The Mears family and Penske have a long-standing relationship. However, Penske could fool everyone and choose an open wheel driver for his team.

These driver change stories will get more interesting as the season moves along.

Television coverage of the USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicago begins at 3 p.m. Sunday and the race will begin at about 3:30. Enjoy the race.

Jeff Findley is the publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald in Ahoskie, N.C. His racing column regularly appears in newspapers across the Southeast. He can be reached by e-mail at jeff.