Tony Stewart shouldn't be worried if 2004 begins to look a lot like last year, despite a problem off the racing surface that kept him from winning a week ago.
In 2003, Stewart came to Pocono Raceway a week after pitting slightly out of his stall at Dover International Speedway. That led to a penalty that wiped out what appeared to be a certain victory, and Stewart settled for fourth.
He immediately atoned for the miscue with a victory in the Pocono 500.
"We had all of the variables we needed to win," Stewart recalled. "We had good pit strategy, great pit stops and a great racecar."
Last Sunday, Stewart was in control again at The Monster Mile but missed the entrance to the pits and wound up second.
The 2002 series champion is fourth this year in the Nextel Cup standings entering Sunday's race. He trailed Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 226 points and is buoyed not only by the Pocono victory of a year ago but by consistently competitive runs on the 21/2-mile triangular layout.
"We'd been close a couple of other times at Pocono, but it seemed like late in the race other variables would creep up, and we'd lose it," Stewart said. "But last year everything came together just right, and it felt good to finally finish one off."
Seven weeks later, he nearly made it a Pocono sweep. Stewart raced from 33rd to first, but on the 154th of 200 laps blew the engine in his Chevrolet.
"Pocono is tough on engines because you're in the gas so long, and you're shifting, and you're up in that rpm range for a very, very long time," he explained. "It's definitely a place that makes the engine builders nervous."
They must make the engine last but get everything out of them. That increases the chances of a motor breaking, but without risk there is no gain.
"If you're down on power at Pocono, you're a mid-pack car at best," Stewart said.
Stewart's stiffest competition Sunday could be Ryan Newman, who lost any realistic chance of winning at Dover when he also missed the entrance to pit road.
Newman was the chief beneficiary when Stewart's engine expired last July at Pocono. Newman wound up with one of his series-leading eight victories after claiming one of 11 poles. That also set the NASCAR standard a year ago.
Yet with more than a third of this season complete, neither has won. Stewart is looking for his 18th career victory, Newman his 10th.
Stewart knows how the race probably will be won on the flat Pocono surface he likens to a road course. It has three distinct turns and requires drivers to shift on the track -- as they do on the serpentine layouts in Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y. They are the only road courses on the NASCAR circuit.
"If there's a guy who can get all three of those corners right, then that's the guy who's going to win the race," Stewart said.
Another top candidate would be Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Bobby Labonte. He's a three-time Pocono winner and in 1999 completed the most recent sweep of the two races held each summer on the mountaintop.
Labonte also realizes the difficulty of racing here.
"There isn't another track we race at that's quite like Pocono," he said. "The three corners are just so different.
"It's important to be open-minded and get as comfortable as possible in the car knowing that in one of the corners you might be giving up a little speed in order to gain momentum on the other parts of the track."
Still, form isn't worth much at Pocono, where there have been eight different winners in the last eight races.
Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett also have done well at Pocono, joining Labonte as the only three-time winners here among active drivers.
Ted Musgrave earned his first pole in what has been a disappointing season in the NASCAR Truck series, running a qualifying lap of 180.971 mph yesterday at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
Musgrave is 15th in points after six races, 248 points behind leader Dennis Setzer. He has only one top-10 finish, and has started his Dodge in the top 10 only twice this year.
"Hopefully the season will turn around for us," Musgrave said.
It is the 10th career pole for Musgrave, a top-three finisher in Craftsman series points in each of the three years since returning to the trucks from the NASCAR Cup series.
Toyota drivers Robert Huffman and Bill Lester took the next two spots on the grid. Huffman went 180.965 mph, Lester 180.826.
Chevrolet driver Setzer will start fourth tonight in the O'Reilly 400.
Brendan Gaughan won the last four truck series races at Texas, a series record for consecutive wins at a track. But that streak won't be extended with Gaughan now a Nextel Cup rookie.