Stewart has work to do to catch the best

Quick, who was NASCAR’s last Sprint Cup Series champion before Jimmie Johnson?

The answer?

Tony Stewart.

And for him, you can bet it feels every bit like the long half-decade since he hoisted his last championship trophy.

When Stewart won in 2005, his soon-to-be replacement at Joe Gibbs Racing, Joey Logano, was 15 years old. NASCAR wasn’t even on the radar for then-23-year-old Danica Patrick, who won IndyCar Rookie of the Year in ’05. And Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was actually still strongly contending for a Cup championship, driving for his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt.

A lot has changed since then, especially for Stewart, who fulfilled his goal to be a team owner in NASCAR’s marquee series.

But he’d also like to reclaim that title swagger behind the wheel, which sometimes looks a little lost among the many duties and distractions of owning racetracks, Sprint teams and putting together a 2012 Cup program for Patrick — all while fielding a pair of Chase cars without a team competition director.

"When you have good people in the right spots, it makes it a lot easier," Stewart said last weekend at Richmond. "We’ve had that from day one or we wouldn’t have added all these different programs. We make sure we’ve got our bases covered.

"(The other business interests) really haven’t made it any harder or easier."

While this is the second time in three years both of Stewart’s cars (his No. 14 Office Depot Chevy and the No. 39 Chevy driven by Ryan Newman) have made the Chase, it hasn’t been a smooth ride.

The two-time champ swore he wasn’t feeling tremendous pressure, even as he berated reporters for their questions at Richmond.

"The pressure is all the media standing here," said a surly Stewart, minutes after an unsatisfying practice session. "We’re doing the same thing we always do every week. It’s you guys asking us the same questions for eight straight weeks in a row that’s annoying.

"That’s where the pressure is coming in because we’re answering the same thing that we answered for the last seven straight weeks."

The source may be debatable, but the pressure clearly is on, and Stewart is the first to admit it’s time to make things happen.

Even though Stewart was tied for the lead in the points standings for one week early in the season, as recently as a month ago, a frustrated Stewart suggested he didn’t deserve to make the 12-driver Chase field because of the way his car had been running.

He had a 27th-place finish Aug. 14 at Watkins Glen, N.Y. — a road course where he is the all-time-winningest driver — followed two weeks later by a 28th at Bristol, Tenn.

He had a five-race stretch between June 12 and July 9 when he mustered only one top-10 finish and endured a 39th-place run at the series’ other road course, Infineon.

But after finally securing his playoff slot in the last possible race before the Chase, a steely and determined Stewart said he should be considered a championship contender — even if, uncharacteristically, he’s a longshot.

"As far as where we’re at, I think we’re king of the underdogs with the (No.) 14 car," Stewart calmly explained.

"Ryan’s guys have done a great job this year, and we’re definitely pretty strong right now, in my opinion.

"It’s kinda nice for us, I guess, to a certain degree, to be the underdogs going into it, and we’ve got nowhere else to go but up."

It’s just an unfamiliar position for Stewart and unfamiliar mindset for his fans.

"I feel like the last two weeks has kind of shown what this team is capable of and the strength behind it to be in this kind of a clutch situation and get ourselves in (the Chase)," Stewart said.

"But we’ve got 10 weeks that we’re up against 11 great organizations and teams, so we’re going to have to rise to the occasion now."