WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Tony Stewart's spirits were about as low as he could get the last time he arrived at Watkins Glen International.
But he left on a high last August after the most emotional of his 16 career victories, and rode the momentum to the Winston Cup championship.
Stewart quickly put behind him the punchout of a photographer a week earlier in Indianapolis - an act that nearly cost him his job, resulted in fines totaling $60,000 and season-ending probation from NASCAR.
Now he's back to defend his title Sunday in the Sirius at The Glen, but doesn't care to talk about his temper even though he has done better job controlling it this year.
"I'm just looking forward to the day when interviews are talking about driving the race cars rather than all this other stuff," he said.
Even that might prove a bit distasteful, because Stewart has won only once since he left here last year.
Accidents, mechanical failures and poor pit stops have ruined dominant efforts this season in five other races. Stewart led for 60 laps last Sunday in Indianapolis but didn't win. A week before that, at Pocono Raceway, he moved from the 33rd starting position to the lead before blowing his engine.
He's 13th in the series standings - a whopping 732 points behind leader Matt Kenseth - but is taking a less-intense approach to his misfortune.
"There's no point getting worked up over it," he said. "I think we're just looking at it with a little less emotion than in the past.
"We're not going to set any records this year, not going to turn any heads with some dazzling performance unless we win six or eight races in a row."
That probably won't happen, but the 2.45-mile Glen road course is a perfect place for Stewart to start a turnaround. He has victories on both of NASCAR's serpentine tracks - the other win coming in 2001 in Sonoma, Calif.
Stewart has no problem getting up for races on this 11-turn layout where the talent of the driver is at a premium. Nowhere is that more evident than on the frontstretch approaching the first turn - a hard right.
"It's more exciting because it's downhill," he explained.
And the excitement isn't limited to that section of the course.
"There's three drag strips and three passing opportunities," Stewart said.
Four-time Watkins Glen winner Jeff Gordon - NASCAR's king of the road with seven career victories - and this year's Sonoma winner, Robby Gordon, are the biggest threats among the Winston Cup regulars.
"Ever since 2000, we've been the car to beat here and we haven't won," Robby Gordon said.
His loss in 2001 was among the bizarre in NASCAR history. The TV telemetry box on the dashboard malfunctioned, sending smoke through his cockpit and forcing him out a race he was leading.
Despite their prowess on the road course, both Gordons tested here last week.
"We probably didn't need to," Robby said. "We didn't go to Sonoma and test, and we still won the race."
Another factor in his decision to test is the winter weather in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
"The track grows bumps," he said. "Sometimes, you'll come here with one setup and try to bring the same setup back and it won't work."
The stiffest competition for Stewart and the unrelated Gordons probably will come from non-regular Ron Fellows. The Canadian driver is generally acknowledged as the finest North American road racer.
He led and might have won two months ago in Sonoma, but got a bad break from a late caution flag. Fellows has five NASCAR victories here - three in Busch series cars and two in truck races.
Other top contenders figure to be Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd and Mark Martin. Wallace had two of his six road-course victories here, Rudd one of his six and Martin three of his four.
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