Of all the sound bites uttered during the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, one of the most memorable came from Tony Stewart after finishing ninth in last year’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Asked after the race about his chances of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup — he was 10th in points at the time — Stewart said, “If we’re going to run this bad, it really doesn’t matter whether we make the Chase or not because we’re going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else that can actually run for a championship should take because our stuff is so bad right now, we’re wasting one of those top-12 spots.”

Stewart’s frustration was understandable; in the first 23 races of 2011, he had no victories and just two top-five finishes. We all know what happened once the Chase started: Stewart won five of 10 races and beat Carl Edwards for the championship on the basis of a tiebreaker.

This season, Stewart is well ahead of last year’s pace. He’s won three races already, tying him with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, so when this year’s Chase starts he’ll be one of, if not the, top seeds. Stewart has finished in the top three eight times already.

One of those top-three finishes was a second-place run at Michigan in June, the first Sprint Cup race on the track’s new surface. Given that result and a career average finish of 11.185 at MIS — behind only Carl Edwards (8.375) and Matt Kenseth (9.269) — Stewart figures to be one of the favorites when the field rolls off Sunday at the 2-mile oval.

Although Stewart is well ahead of last year’s pace, he’s not taking it for granted that his chances for a fourth championship are better this year. So its business as usual for the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing squad this weekend at MIS.

“Well, you feel better knowing you have three wins,” said Stewart. “But the thing is, you don’t really think from that standpoint. You always go in there every weekend with the intention that you’re going to win the race. So you’re focusing on what you’ve got to do to keep your program good so when you get in the Chase, you can perform in the Chase. But, for right now, it’s just kind of the same thing we always talk about every year at this time. We’re taking it one week at a time, and you’re just trying to make sure that every track you’re going to, you’re getting 100 percent out of what your package is that weekend.”

Stewart likes the new track surface at MIS and thinks it will only get better with time.

“Once it cleaned off, it seemed like the track got to be pretty good,” Stewart said. “It was still a relatively one-groove track, but it got better as the weekend went on. Hopefully, the racetrack will continue on that path and continue to widen out. It was a lot racier than I thought it would be, right off the bat, so I’m anticipating it’s going to be even better when we get back on it this weekend.”

In June, Marcos Ambrose qualified on the pole at 203.241 miles per hour, the fastest qualifying lap at a non-restrictor-plate race in NASCAR history. Stewart said the high speeds aren’t cause for safety concerns.

“The safety of these cars has come a long way, and racetrack safety, too, with the soft walls,” he said. “I don’t think you’re ever really concerned about it until something bad happens. But I’ve been to racetracks, and I’ve seen crashes at 60 mph that hurt people a lot worse than 160 mph. So I feel pretty confident with the safety package that we have, with both the racetrack side and with what NASCAR has done with the cars.”

As for his season on a whole, Stewart said the team still has room to improve.

“We’re still trying to find some consistency,” he said. “We’ve had some great runs and then some not-so-great runs. Lately though, we’ve been running pretty competitively. Even at Kentucky (finished 32nd) and last week at Watkins Glen (finished 19th), we were fast. We never really got to show it at Kentucky because we had ignition trouble. We were 30-some odd laps down but running some of the fastest laps of the race. And at Watkins Glen, we had a top-five car but I made a mistake and spun and we ended up 19th. We can be better, but I also know we’re getting better, too.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.