Tony Stewart's eighth-place finish last Saturday night in Bristol, Tenn., hardly caused a ripple of excitement in NASCAR, even though he earned the result by jumping 11 positions in the final 30 laps.

After all, the 2002 champion has been setting a higher standard recently.

With five wins in his last nine starts and no finish worse than eighth, Stewart is riding the hottest streak in NASCAR's top stock-car series since Jeff Gordon won seven of nine and closed the season with 20 consecutive finishes of seventh or better -- 18 of them third or better -- in 1998, on the way to one of his four championships.

But now that he is assured a spot in the second Chase for the Championship, the 10-race playoff that begins Sept. 18, Stewart notes that he has won nothing -- yet.

Once the drivers get through California and Richmond, the top 10 drivers in the points -- as well as any others in the now unlikely situation of being within 400 points of the leader -- will have their points reset. Any margin Stewart builds over the rest of the field will be mostly wiped away, with each of the drivers in the Chase starting the 10-race dash separated in increments of five points.

"For so many years, the Cup Series was about winning the title based upon what guy had the most points at the end of the year because he was the most consistent," Stewart said. "The Chase for the Championship is just a change in time.

"I'm not sure it really matters what I feel about it. It is what it is. I think it can be a positive thing for our sport, but we'll just sit back and see what happens. I'm not sure if any of us like or dislike it, but we can't do anything about it. Its second year hasn't even started, so we'll just ride it out and see how it works."

While Stewart and several of the other drivers at the top of the standings can just relax and go racing over the next two weeks, there are seven drivers feeling the pressure.

Only 128 points separate eighth-place Carl Edwards -- 561 points behind Stewart -- from 14th-place Dale Jarrett. Only 84 separate Edwards and 13th-place Elliott Sadler. In between are Ryan Newman, Gordon, Bristol winner Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray.

"If you are solidly in the top 10, it will be business as usual," Stewart said as his team prepared his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet for today's race at California Speedway. "But if you're 11th in points and you're within 50 points of the guy in 10th, and it's down to the last two races, you're going to race just like you are racing for the championship."

Crocker's Debut?

Erin Crocker, who began drawing plenty of attention when she won a World of Outlaws sprint-car race last year, will get her first shot at making a NASCAR race next week in Richmond when she attempts to qualify for Friday's Busch Series race.

The 24-year-old Crocker, part of the driver development program at Evernham Motorsports, has been brought along slowly and carefully this season by team owner Ray Evernham. In five starts in the ARCA stock-car series, Crocker has turned in three top five and four top 10 finishes. She also has run a handful of USAC Silver Crown Series races for Nextel Cup driver Kasey Kahne this season.

Crocker spent Tuesday at Richmond International Raceway shaking down the car she will drive in the Emerson Radio 250 next weekend.

"I think I'm about as ready as I'm going to be," she said. "I know it's going to be a big step up and there's going to be tough competition, but you have to start somewhere.

"My goal right now is to qualify on time and not have to use the owner's points, to finish on the lead lap, and to learn," she added.

Crocker has raced before at Richmond, finishing 29th earlier this year in a Silver Crown event.