CONCORD, N.C. - Tony Stewart can't win this year's NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. Neither can Ryan Newman or Jimmie Johnson.
That's why all three are using the final six races as a springboard for 2004.
Stewart, Newman and Johnson did what they do best Saturday night in the final 100 miles of the UAW-GM 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Stewart and Johnson relied on fast cars and a final pit stop for new tires; Newman tried to work pit strategy and fuel mileage magic.
"Anytime you can come and finish the year as strong as we've been in the last three or four weeks, it's sure going to help (next season)," said Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief. "Hopefully we can finish the next six weeks here or so and get out of (season-finale at) Homestead with some good runs and take that momentum and start next year with it."
Zipadelli and Stewart are off to a good start in racing's stretch drive. They won Saturday night's race by erasing Newman's seven-second lead, which was created by pit strategy and fuel mileage. Stewart finally got around Newman with six laps to go and won by 50 yards for his second victory of the season.
"After everything that's happened to us this year, it's good to get some momentum," Stewart said. "Now what we have to do is carry that over during the off-season and into next year."
Matt Kenseth finished 12th to stop a two-race slide in the point standings. After losing 177 points in the two previous races, Kenseth was back on track with his 27th top-15 finish in 31 races to lead by 267 points over Kevin Harvick heading into Sunday's race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
Newman is fourth in the rankings; Johnson is fifth; and Stewart is seventh.
While Kenseth tries to protect his points lead, everyone else is trying to make the best of what's remaining. They also know history favors those who win in the final six races of the year.
If Kenseth wins the championship as expected - and it would take a dramatic collapse for him not to - he would be the fourth driver in the past seven years who started a championship push with a victory in the final six races of the previous season.
"We've had some issues, but we came on strong the second half of the year like we normally do and moving us back up in the points where we can make the most of it," Zipadelli said. "It's been frustrating, but knowing that you reached the ultimate goal of winning the championship last year makes this year a little easier to deal with."
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.