Tony Stewart never thought of himself as superstitious. If things don't change, though, he might be racing with a rabbit's foot hanging from his rearview mirror soon.
Stewart was a rookie sensation on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit last year. He won three races, finished every event but one and wound up a stunning fourth in the standings, the highest for a first-year driver since 1965.
With those credentials, Stewart and his bright orange Pontiac seemed likely to challenge for a championship in 2000.
Instead, he has struggled just to make it to the checkered flag. Through nine races, Stewart already has three of those dreaded "DNFs" -- did not finish -- beside his name. Top-five finishes at Rockingham, N.C., Las Vegas and Darlington, S.C., have been countered by 34th in Atlanta, 42nd in Bristol, Tenn., and another 34th in Talladega, Ala.
Can we call this a sophomore slump?
"I'm not very superstitious," the 28-year-old Stewart said. "But I'm starting to become that way."
He endured a miserable day at Atlanta Motor Speedway. First, there were mechanical problems. Then, he had to make an unscheduled pit stop with a cut tire. Finally, he clipped the outside retaining wall and slid into the path of Robert Pressley's car, getting a mild concussion in the race-ending crash on lap 270.
At Bristol, a track where Stewart led a total of 352 laps during the two 1999 races, his day ended after only 73 laps when debris on the track cut a water belt, causing the engine to overheat.
IN HIS MOST recent race, at Talladega, Stewart was minding his own business coming through the tri-oval when a 16-car crash took him out on lap 138. His crew managed to get him back on the track for three more laps before the engine quit, dropping him to 13th in the standings -- 321 points behind leader Mark Martin heading into the California 500 Sunday.
"We're doing the same things we did last year," Stewart said. "But we had a great year, a clean year. We didn't have a lot of DNFs that cost us points last year."
Cocky, outspoken and quick to show his temper, Stewart plays down the bad luck that has plagued his Joe Gibbs Racing team this year.
"We tend to overanalyze these things," he said. "How many parts are there on a car? How many cars are out there on the track? How much control do we have over all that? It's really a small percentage. A lot of it is luck. Last year, we had it. This year, things keep creeping up on us. Everything moves full circle."
It's been a a dizzying ride from record-setting sprint car driver in his native Indiana, to the Indy Racing League champion no one knew, to a Winston Cup phenom whose No. 20 paraphernalia is already among the most popular on the circuit, right up there with guys like Martin, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.
But the 1999 rookie of the year has dealt with frustration before. Like any boy from Indiana who grew up racing, his ultimate dream was to stand in victory lane at the Indianapolis 500, taking a sip of milk and waving to the 400,000 fans.
DURING HIS YEARS in the IRL, he always had the fastest car on the track. He started on the pole as a rookie in 1996 and led a total of 109 laps, but mechanical problems kept knocking him out.
"It could be a lot worse," said Stewart, who grew up about 45 miles from the speedway. "I remember what I went through in the IRL."
Last year, he ran the 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Concord, N.C., on the same day. In an amazing performance, he became the first driver to complete both races, covering nearly 1,090 miles in two very different race cars. But he finished ninth at Indy, leaving a void in his life. (He was fourth in Concord).
"The 500 is the 500," he said. "You can't substitute anything for the 500."
Nevertheless, Stewart won't attempt another double this May. There's too much work to do in Winston Cup.
"We're not having the year we had last year," he said. "We're trying to run for points this year. We don't want to dilute the effort."