JOLIET, Ill. Tony Stewart is pleased to have won twice in a row after nearly a year without a victory. He still believes, however, he's got plenty to prove before he becomes a true contender for NASCAR's Nextel Cup championship.
Stewart's victories at the road course in Sonoma, Calif., two weeks ago and a dominating performance last week in the restrictor plate race at Daytona told the driver and his Joe Gibbs Racing team very little about the rest of the season. NASCAR's top series races only twice a year on road circuits and only twice each at Daytona and Talladega, the two tracks where horsepower-sapping plates are used to keep the speeds down.
More telling, Stewart said, will be the results of Sunday's USG Sheetrock 400 on Chicagoland Speedway's 1 1/2-mile oval a track where he has finished third, second and first in the past three seasons.
''It's a situation where I don't think we can say, 'Hey, we're back on track now because of a road course and a restrictor plate race,''' he said. ''This weekend is going to be big. It's going to be a telltale weekend for us.''
It began on a bad note. On Friday, Stewart crashed hard during practice and spent part of his day being checked out for possible upper body and head injuries at a local hospital.
Tough guy Tony got a clean bill of health, but the Gibbs team decided to hold him out of qualifying and let Busch Series regular J.J. Yeley put the backup No. 20 Chevrolet into the field and earn a decent spot on pit road for the race. Yeley qualified 13th but, under NASCAR rules regarding changing drivers, Stewart will have to start the race from the rear of the 43-car field.
Stewart was back in the car for Saturday's two morning practice sessions.
''I still don't remember what happened, but the good thing is that I don't feel terrible,'' Stewart said. ''I'm just real sore. I feel like I got invited to a baseball bat war and didn't get my own bat.''
Still, Stewart remains confident heading into the race.
''The doctor said I could be in the car and that's where I'll be. We've got a good car,'' he said. ''I realistically feel like I've got a shot to go out and win this thing again tomorrow.''
Stewart and others believe Sunday's race will be a key to the rest of the season because the Cup series has so many races on so-called intermediate tracks ovals of 1 1/2 and 2 miles. Including Sunday, there are eight more races on intermediate tracks this season.
Before a deflated tire sent him hard into the wall on Friday, Stewart noted that his second-place finish on the 2-mile oval at Michigan the week before Sonoma could actually be more telling than the two victories.
''If we can have a really good weekend this weekend that backs up what we had at Michigan, that will really tell us where we stand,'' he said. ''Hopefully, what we learned there and what worked for us at Michigan will work for us here.
''If it doesn't, it tells us we found something that works good at one track. If it works good here, it tells us that we may have found something that's going to help us catch up and close that gap between the Hendrick and Roush teams and the rest of us.''
Hendrick and Roush drivers have combined to win 13 of the first 17 races this season and 18 of the last 23 overall.
Roush's Greg Biffle leads the way with five wins in 2005, while Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson with three wins this season, leads Biffle by 73 points in the standings and will start from the pole on Sunday.
For Jeff Gordon, another Hendrick driver and a four-time Cup champion, Sunday's race is as key as it is for Stewart.
Gordon won three of the first nine races this season and appeared on the way to another big season. But five finishes of 30th or worse in the last seven races have slowed his momentum considerably.
''Whoever comes out of here is definitely going to show their muscle as far as who the team to beat is the rest of the season,'' said Gordon, who will start 14th on Sunday.
Under NASCAR's Chase format, the top 10 drivers plus any drivers within 400 points of the leader after the first 26 races will be eligible to race for the championship over the final 10 events.
Going into Sunday's race, Gordon is 13th 396 points behind Johnson the last driver currently eligible for the Chase.
Among the outsiders with nine races left before the Chase is Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose season has been one long struggle. A third-place finish at Daytona was a big improvement for Earnhardt, but he too looks at Sunday as a harbinger of things to come.
''I'm pretty upbeat about our opportunity this weekend,'' said Earnhardt, who qualified 25th here after finishing 17th at Michigan. ''We've got a lot of stuff we incorporated that helped it drive really good at Michigan, and we've got some more stuff, too. We've just got to keep working and I think we'll be all right.''
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