NASCAR bad boy Tony Stewart reacted to the latest flap the way he does to just about every problem: He went racing.

After being warned by NASCAR and criticized by some Nextel Cup competitors for his driving at Talladega and California Speedway, Stewart spent the off week in sprint cars.

He went back to his dirt track roots, climbing into a 360 winged sprint car at Sedalia (Mo.) State Fair Speedway and at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway last weekend.

Stewart won the feature at Sedalia and finished sixth in Knoxville, saying it was great therapy.

"The fans at Sedalia and Knoxville were great," he said. "We had huge autograph lines after the races were over, and we stayed until everybody who wanted an autograph got one.

"It was definitely a good getaway after all the garbage we've been receiving the last couple of weeks."

Still, the 2002 Cup champion was looking forward to getting back to his real job, especially since Saturday night's race was at Richmond International Raceway.

Stewart's first win at Richmond (1999) was the first of his Cup career. He went on to win back-to-back spring races at Richmond in 2001 and 2002 and added to his trophy count when he won truck races in 2002 and 2003.

The only year in which Stewart didn't win at Richmond was 2000, but he still finished in the top 10 in both Cup races that year.

The big difference this time is that the three-quarter-mile oval has been repaved.

"It's really smooth, glass-smooth actually," said Stewart, one of several drivers who tested on the new surface. "I'm not sure I could find a bump if someone paid me to find a bump out there.

"It's really nice, but the downside to fresh asphalt is that it always makes it hard to pass. And, on top of that, we're running over a second faster than what we normally run there, so it's going to be that much more difficult to pass."

Filter System Gets Test

A device designed to remove carbon monoxide from inside a driver's car will make its racing debut this weekend at Richmond.

The system will be installed in the cars of Penske drivers Ryan Newman and Brendan Gaughan. It uses two filters -- one containing carbon and the other a platinum-based catalyst developed by NASCAR -- to convert carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide.

Contained in a carbon fiber housing in the driver's compartment, the unit weighs less than 3 pounds. It can be connected to an InterCooler, which provides cool air inside a driver's helmet.

The air containing the carbon monoxide, as well as other poisonous gases from a car's exhaust, must have a specific lag time in the system for the filtration and conversion to occur.

The unit, developed in part by Penske Racing South, has been in the works for more than a year.

Penske Racing president Don Miller said he, Newman, crew chief Matt Borland and engineer Roy McCauley began gathering data on carbon monoxide in 2002, when Newman received a heavy dose of the poisonous gas during a race.

Other systems have been used to try to keep drivers from breathing in carbon monoxide while racing, but none have been proven 100 percent effective.

Jarrett's Team Improving

Dale Jarrett headed into the race at Richmond a very disappointing 18th in the season points. He had just three top 10s -- none better than ninth.

But the 1999 Cup champion insists things aren't as bad as they appear.

"There's no doubt that we're better than we were, but I think that you have to look at where we were," Jarrett said.

Jarrett noted that new crew chief Mike Ford, in his second stint with Robert Yates Racing, told the driver during a recent conversation that he was surprised to find the team in such bad shape when he returned.

"He said to me, 'I left here, and this was a championship caliber team and didn't think it had gotten to this point.' Unfortunately, it had, so he had a bigger job ahead of him than what he anticipated, I think," Jarrett explained.

The No. 88 team finished 26th last season, the first time Jarrett had been out of the top 10 since 1995.

Jarrett said the team has definitely made gains since Ford's return.

"We still have a ways to go, which is obvious," he said. "It seems we're in that 15th spot a lot, and we've got to get ourselves solidified in that top-10 area to where then we can make small changes to get ourselves situated in the top five. Then that gives you chances to win."

The last of Jarrett's 31 wins came at Rockingham in the second race of 2003. He has won at least one race in each of the last 11 seasons. . . .

Eight of the top 10 drivers in the Cup standings heading into Richmond were also in the top 10 following the 10th race in 2003.

That includes the top five: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch. A year ago, the order was Kenseth, Earnhardt, Gordon, Busch and Johnson.

Tony Stewart shown winning two years ago at Richmond International Raceway, which is "glass-smooth" after being repaved.