NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman straps on his helmet prior to practice for the Auto Club 400 auto race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Friday March 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Will Lester)
FONTANA, Calif. -- Tony Stewart doesn't usually hit high gear until the summer, when the temperatures are hot enough to melt rubber.
Ryan Newman has a similar track record, usually hovering around the edge of the Chase until the season is a few months old.
This season, they're trying something new: running up front from the start.
Typically slow starters, Stewart and Newman are ahead of schedule through the first four races this season, tied for third in the Sprint Cup series standings with 138 points each, 12 behind leader Kurt Busch.
''It's definitely a good thing,'' Stewart said Friday before qualifying at Auto Club Speedway. ''I don't know if you can look at it as a telltale sign of what our season's going to be like, but it's always nice to get off to a good start. You don't feel like you're playing catch up right off the bat.''
If it hadn't been for bad luck at Daytona, they'd be even better off.
Stewart was sitting second in what would be the final restart, seemingly in great position to end his 0-for-12 streak at The Great American Race. Instead, he couldn't link up with Martin -- a necessity after Daytona's repaving -- and ended up 13th.
Newman had a good run going at Daytona, leading 37 laps, but was taken out on a late-race wreck with David Ragan on a restart that also collected fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Newman finished 22.
The Daytona disappointment didn't carry over.
Stewart struggled in qualifying to start 18th the next week at Phoenix, but ended up leading 59 laps and finished seventh. Next race in Las Vegas, Stewart had the best car all day, leading a race-high 163 laps, but had a pit mishap -- he left the pits with the air hose still attached -- that ultimately quashed his chances.
Stewart was 22nd after his last pit stop, but still ended up finishing second behind Carl Edwards.
Even a poor-handling car and a 19th at Bristol wasn't enough to slow Stewart's early momentum. He's led a series-high 222 laps, which, by itself, would be a sign that Stewart-Haas has put its early season woes behind.
''The overall strength and the backbone of our team and our organization is much better and stronger than it has been,'' Newman said. ''Part of that is just pure confidence from the first four races.''
Expecting to build off a 2009 season that got him into the Chase, Newman struggled last season, opening with a 34th at Daytona and a 36th at Fontana on his way to finishing 15th in the standings.
The 2008 Daytona 500 winner bounced back from his crash at this year's race by avoiding another, bigger one at Phoenix to finish fifth. Newman overcame some handling issues at Las Vegas to make it two straight fifths, then was 10th at Bristol after a poor qualifying session and more car troubles.
''To come back from some of the things that we have dealt with and to have a good start is nice, but the confidence of how we work together is to me what is more exciting than actually being (third) in points,'' said Newman, who's led 70 laps this season, seven more than he did in all of 2010.
''I think we have done much better as a team to get where we are this year and done what we thought we were capable of the last two years. We just had bad racing luck that put us in a hole that we had to fight out of.''
It's a good thing, too, because digging out is looking to be a lot tougher than before under NASCAR's new points system.
Before, a driver could make up ground with a string of good finishes. Under the new system, drivers are awarded points based directly on their finish, earning 43 points for a win -- in a 43-car field -- all the way down to 1 for last. This new system rewards consistency, but punishes poor finishes.
To be out near the front already is the place to be, even if it means being tied with a teammate.
''Normally, I don't like being tied with somebody, but this is a situation where I'm happy to be tied with somebody right now,'' Stewart said.