CARROLLTON -- Tony Stewart shakes his head. No, he has not suddenly become a better driver.
He's won seven of the last 16 Sprint Cup races, and he's a big favorite to make it eight out of 17 on Saturday night in the Mobile Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
But it's not because he's suddenly become a better driver.
Maybe his car has just gotten better than everyone else's.
"This is a sport that is so technology-driven, that's the determining factor," he said Wednesday at a promotional appearance. "I think too much emphasis is placed on people peaking and this and that. It's not like other sports where it's an individual performance. This is such a technology-driven sport, you have to stay up on it more than anything. Everybody's trying to find that next great set-up and the thing that puts you to the top."
The set-up in Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet has sure put him at the top. He is the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, finishing last season with five wins in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup "playoffs."
This year, he's collected a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- a 1.5-mile track similar to TMS -- and another on the two-mile loop at Fontana, Calif.
There was also a runner-up finish at the Bud Shootout and a win in one of the Gatorade Duels in Daytona, Fla. Neither race counts in the driver standings, but they are more evidence of the strength of the Stewart-Haas organization since last year.
The team even absorbed a crew chief change. Darian Grubb, who led the championship run, was replaced in the off-season by Steve Addington.
And yet Stewart kept on ticking.
And everybody kept shaking their head.
"It's amazing. When you get hot, you get hot," driver Kurt Busch said. "Whether it's something in the car giving you the confidence to run harder on the racetrack or finding a new setup, in this sport, you can be hot. And right now they have that."
Everybody else wants it. The trick right now is figuring out what it is. Stewart-Haas' other driver, Ryan Newman. And his No. 39 Chevy won two weeks ago at Martinsville, Va.
"It's obvious that they found something, some combination, a spring, shock bar, geometry -- they've found something that's working for them and is making their cars better than everyone else," series leader Greg Biffle said. "That's what this game's about ... . It's finding a play or a pattern or something that is better than your competition.
"Clearly it's trickled down to the 39, because he was not that spectacular last year and is running much, much better. Not as good as the 14. But they clearly have something figured out."
Whatever Stewart and Stewart-Haas have figured out, it has him on a strong start in defending his championship. A fourth title, this year or next year or whenever, would make him only the fourth driver with that many -- Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. have seven, Jimmie Johnson has five and Jeff Gordon has four.
Also, with two wins already and 30 races left in the season, Stewart has a chance to threaten the modern-day record of 13 victories in a year, held by Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty. (Petty holds the all-time record of 27).
"He can win 12, 15 races if whatever they're doing keeps working for them and nobody else figures it out," Biffle said. "I mean, that's pretty far-fetched, but not really when you look at winning five of the 10, coming out and winning a couple. It doesn't look like anybody can compete with him."
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407