Avondale, Ariz. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli isn't overly confident just because his driver, Tony Stewart, will take an 89-point lead over Mark Martin into the Winston Cup season finale next Sunday in Homestead, Fla.
"You can stand in my shoes if you want," Zipadelli said after his driver finished eighth on Sunday in the Checker Auto Parts 500. "I won't feel comfortable until (next) Sunday night. Eighty-nine points is not a guarantee."
Stewart needs only to finish in the top 25 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to become the 2002 champion, no matter what Martin does.
"If we go down there and run as good as we tested there, we should have a strong, top-five car," Zipadelli said. "But (the lead) is not enough if we have a problem.
"It's going to come down to both of us running good at Homestead and seeing where we end up. We've just got to go down, stay out of trouble and just race hard and clean next week."
Stewart was fastest among a group of drivers who tested on the 11Â¼2-mile Homestead oval last week.
"We just went down for two days, had some fun and played with two different cars," Zipadelli said.
One of those cars is chassis No. 51, the car Stewart has run about 10 times this season.
"It's been a solid race car," Zipadelli said. "He's real comfortable in it and the car ran real well again when we were in Homestead testing. We were probably the best we've ever been there in testing.
"It's a place Tony loves. It's a place our cars seem to run well at and, hopefully, we can go down there and have a good, strong run."
Stewart won in Homestead in both 1999 and 2000.
Asked Sunday if he can see the championship trophy a little more clearly now, Stewart said, "Nope. I don't want to talk about it even. I think we can win the race at Homestead next week, and that's the way I want to finish my year out."¢
Rookie race: Ryan Newman kept his 20-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the battle for Rookie of the Year despite a disappointing day.
Newman started from the pole but wound up 15th after struggling throughout the race. Johnson, who has cooled off considerably in recent weeks, finished 18th.
"It was a tough day," Newman said. "We didn't have the race car that we thought we had. It was good for about five laps in a run and that's just not good enough. We just need to go back and look and try to figure out what we can do better."
It was only the 14th time in 35 races that Newman has failed to finish in the top 10.
Johnson was even more disappointed than Newman, saying, "We just made mistakes every time on pit road, and it cost us. I drove to ninth and fell back to 20th, drove into the top 10 again and fell back to 20th. Every time we came in the pits we lost 10, 15 spots.
"In the last three weeks, some crazy stuff has been going on and it's really, really hurt us. From getting crashed by Mark (Martin) before we even took the green flag in one race, and last week a hub problem. Just one thing after another. You wouldn't expect this kind of stuff to happen being such a first-rate team."¢
Difficult debut: It was an eventful Winston Cup debut for open-wheel star Christian Fittipaldi.
After starting 17th in the 43-car field, Fittipaldi quickly fell to 30th and was just cruising, trying to finish the 312-lap race, when he was turned into the wall by Jason Leffler on lap 252.
"The first half of the race, we were looking not exceptional but not bad," the Brazilian driver said. "It was a different kind of racing. I just wanted to run, run, run. We lost a couple of laps when I ran out of fuel and we had radio problems.
"I was trying to finish the race and the No. 7 hit me from behind. It was a pretty big hit," added Fittipaldi, who wound up 41st.
Leffler said, "I was just racing with him and I misjudged, I guess. He didn't give me a lot of room, but I didn't mean to do anything. That was the fastest part of the track."