Despite a strong Speedweeks, which included podiums in the Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade Duel and a win in the Nationwide Series opener, Tony Stewart insists that the Auto Club 500 in Fontana this weekend will give a better indication of where everyone lies in the 2009 Sprint Cup field.
In his first race weekend with his own Stewart Haas Racing team, Stewart finished eighth in the Daytona 500 and heads to California in seventh in the standings, having also secured bonus points for leading the 500 in its early stages.
However, he was quick to point out that the Fontana circuit will provide a different challenge to Daytona, with the onus being more on each driver rather than performances as a team.
“Daytona is a restrictor-plate race, and unlike Daytona, four guys can't get in a line at California and go to the front,” he said. “Daytona and Talladega have always just been two different forms of racing. With the draft being so important at those two tracks, it's more of a team deal than an individual deal. What happens at California and the races after that has to be done on our own. You can't help each other at California. You just have to go race.
“Daytona does overshadow California and Vegas and some of the early tracks on the schedule. Once you get through Daytona, these next two or three races after that really set the tone for your season. It gives you an accurate assessment of where your programme is right off the bat.”
Stewart added that he felt Fontana will be where the season really begins, with the week-long extravaganza that is Speedweeks firmly in the past.
“I think everybody's pretty worn out after being in Daytona for so long,” he said. “California means a normal routine and a chance for the crew guys to get back to their families for a couple of days before heading to another racetrack.
“What you do at California is solely based on what you and your team can do with your racecar, not what drafting line you're in or how the car behind you is going to affect your next move. Once we get away from Daytona everything kind of settles into a groove. We're back in the weekly grind. I enjoy going to California because I really feel that's where our season starts. That's a track where you don't really worry about what everybody else's car is doing. You worry about what your car is doing. You're racing the racetrack. You're not racing everybody else. It's a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things.
“Once you leave California, you feel like the season has officially started.”