Stewart, on early hot streak, back for more in Cali

Jay Busbee
From the Marbles

[Editor's note: welcome Geoffrey Miller to the Marbles ranks! Here's his first article. Pretty soon, he'll get his very own byline!]

Tony Stewart's probably having a decent week. Smoke, of course, is off to one of his best career starts to a season and returning to the site of his last victory.

He also dabbled in working as a zookeeper this week at the Oakland Zoo, where he got face-to-face with an 11,000-pound elephant. (Stewart is no newbie to the animal kingdom — he once owned a patas monkey that he later donated to the Louisville Zoo.)

But zoo stories aside, Stewart's got a race this weekend at Auto Club Speedway and 42 other helmeted elephants to deal with — and his preview of it doesn't gloss much over.

"I've just been terrible there," the two-time Sprint Cup champion said. "We've had times when we've been good, but I've really struggled as a driver there over the course of 12 years."

Stewart's relationship with the southern California track has been so personally murky that even a win there last October didn't seem to sway his opinion. In terms of average finish, Stewart has just three tracks on the Sprint Cup Series circuit where he typically is worse at — Bristol, Daytona and Talladega.

The victory was Stewart's first in 18 tries at the track, and it was the culmination of a decided improvement for Stewart at the two-mile oval. In the past six seasons, Stewart has been the sixth-best Cup driver under the near-Hollywood lights.

Such improvement has been also evident in his first four cracks at the 2011 season. Stewart is third in points, just 12 markers back of leader Kurt Busch, thanks to an average finish of 10th and 222 laps led.

For perspective, Stewart has long been known to improve as the season wears on and the summer sun starts to turn the paved race tracks a little more like the Turns 1 and 2 at his self-owned dirt track, Eldora Speedway. The numbers don't hide it: Stewart's 222 laps led so far this season far outpace his last two.

In 2009, Stewart needed 18 races to lead that many laps and in 2010 it took 25 races of the 36-race schedule. Stewart's finishing position is also two spots better through the season's first four races than a year ago.

"This year, with the new nose, we took another step toward that and spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel," Stewart's crew chief Darian Grubb said. "I feel like we had a pretty good baseline going into this year. We've had three chances to win on a speedway, a one-mile and a mile-and-a-half, so we feel pretty good about our program right now."

Does that guarantee Stewart will be California dreamin' come Sunday? Certainly not. But it does strike a pretty ominous chord for drivers used to dealing with Smoke mostly when the mercury begins to rise.

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