LAS VEGAS -- As unlikely as it is to consider the third race of a very long season as crucial, the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 might be just that for Tony Stewart if he hopes to be a title contender.
The beginning of this season is similar to the start last year for Stewart. He faltered early, then came on strong in the late going to finish second in points to four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.
Just about any list of top contenders for the 2002 title started with those two names, but Stewart's last-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 -- thanks to a blown engine after just two laps -- left him perplexed.
''You can't help but wonder what's going to happen next,'' Stewart said Saturday as he got ready for the race Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
He bounced back from the Daytona debacle with a fourth-place finish last Sunday in Rockingham, N.C., and moved from 43rd to 22nd in the season standings.
Las Vegas could be a pivotal race. It could provide momentum for Stewart or shuffle him back into that deep hole created in Daytona.
''I think everybody is kind of realistic about the fact that in 36 races that you're going to have three or four bad days during the year,'' Stewart said before climbing into his Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac for the final practice session. ''You know it's going to happen to everybody.
''After Daytona is over, you just have to forget about Daytona and go to Rockingham. Now, last week is over and you focus on this week.''
Stewart, who will start 15th Sunday, tries not to think much about the ups and downs of the season, but says the media won't let him forget.
''You guys are the ones that remind me that we get off to a slow start and remind me how big of a deficit I normally have by the eighth race or so,'' Stewart said. ''We know that we need to try to stay as close to the front as we can these first seven or eight races. But, it doesn't really change the approach or anything -- there is no mindset change.
''You hope that you're a little closer than you were last year. We still just take it one week at a time. That is the only way that you can do this and be good in the business.''
In three previous starts on the 1 1/2-mile Las Vegas oval, Stewart has finishes of 36th, second and 12th.
''We were one of the many teams that came out and tested here,'' Stewart said. ''We didn't test last year and I think the results showed that we needed to come out here.''
Stewart felt like his car was one of the better ones in the test. Now, his goal Sunday is maintain the balance of his Grand Prix throughout the race.
''I think we've got a shot here,'' he said.
Gordon, whose latest championship run was ignited by his victory here last March, will start his Chevrolet 13th, well behind a trio of Ford drivers who took the top qualifying spots.
Todd Bodine, campaigning for a new sponsor after his team lost its major funding from bankrupt Kmart, will start from the pole, alongside precocious rookie Ryan Newman. Third on the grid will be Las Vegas native Kurt Busch.
Jimmy Spencer, whose Dodge will start fourth, is in much a position similar to that of Stewart after failing to qualify in Daytona and finishing 20th in Rockingham. He's 40th in the points heading into his third start with Chip Ganassi Racing.
A victory would be a huge boost for either Stewart or Spencer, but the latter would rather not speculate on that.
''A lot of circumstances are involved in racing,'' Spencer said. ''Tires, lapped traffic, so many things can happen during a race, there's no sense in ever predicting whether you can or can't win.
''You've got to prepare the best you can, have a lot of confidence and try to have a mistake-free day. This is the best we've been prepared so far for a race.''
Stewart wasn't making any predictions, either.
''All I know is I'm not very high up in the odds at the casino sports books here,'' he said. ''Maybe we can cost them some money.''
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