In the autumn of 2002, Tony Stewart left Talladega Superspeedway as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point leader. He came into the fourth and final restrictor plate race of the season trailing series leader Jimmie Johnson by 36 points, but thanks to a strong second-place finish to Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart left the EA SPORTS 500 with a 72-point advantage that no one was able to overcome.

One year on, Stewart enters Talladega 10th in the championship point standings, 867 markers behind series leader Matt Kenseth and 287 points behind fifth-place Ryan Newman. Much has changed in the almost 12 months since last year's EA SPORTS 500 at the 2.66-mile oval - Joe Gibbs Racing switched from Pontiac to Chevrolet, NASCAR implemented new rules and regulations and Winston announced it exodus as title sponsor - but one element that did not change was the Home Depot Racing team's resolve.

With eight races remaining, Stewart and Co. are committed as ever to winning. Their lone victory at Pocono in June was great, but for a team that has won at least three races in each of the four years they've been in Winston Cup, it hasn't been enough.

While no wins have been recorded at Talladega, it has proven to be Stewart's better restrictor plate venue when compared to Daytona - the only other restrictor plate venue on the circuit. Stewart has three second-place restrictor plate finishes, and they've all come at Talladega. And of the 56 laps Stewart has led in the 19-restrictor plate races he has run, 49 of them have been at Talladega.

For Stewart and Co. Talladega represents more than just a race. It represents another opportunity to win.

"We're taking it one week at a time, just trying to win races," said Stewart, who is all but mathematically eliminated from this year's title chase. "This Home Depot team is just trying to win each week, and whatever it gives us, it gives us. I'll be kind of glad when this year is over, but it has made me appreciate last season even more from a performance standpoint - being able to rally back and win the points like we did - that was pretty impressive."

One factor Stewart will have to get used to this weekend though is an increase in the #20 Chevrolet's rear spoiler height as NASCAR continue to try and tweak the series' restrictor plate rules in order to try and avoid the kind of multi-car pileup that decimated the field on lap four of this year's Aaron's 499 at the monstrous 2.66-mile track.

"I just want them to come up with something that keeps us from having to run three-wide all day long," said Stewart, who will have a little bit more power at his disposal due to a change in the size of the restrictor plate itself. "But the only way to find out ways to do that is to try different things. I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens during the race.

"You've got to try stuff to see what works and what doesn't. I applaud NASCAR for at least making the effort to try and make things a little bit different than what they were, while at the same time, keeping the racing exciting for the fans."

Another change in place this weekend is the first appearance of 'escape' hatches in the roofs of the cars, something Stewart greatly approves of even if his team isn't one of those testing the devise this weekend.

"It's great, especially with the way the headrests are these days to protect you in case of an impact. They're big and bulky, and if you had to get out of the racecar in a hurry because of fire, it was making it increasingly difficult, especially if you were penned in with the left side of the car against the wall to where you couldn't get out that way. Now we have another escape - another way to get out of the vehicle. There are a lot of good things happening in NASCAR right now."

 

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