NASCAR Race Weekend Central

No Bull: Is Tony Stewart Now the Man to Beat?

Given his performance over the middle portion of the summer schedule, it was only a matter of time before Tony Stewart reached victory lane. Well, the clock finally ran out on Smoke’s 31-race winless drought Sunday; he dominated the Emory Healthcare 500, leading 176 laps and coming from behind late to wind up holding the trophy.

It was a more impressive performance than Stewart’s last Atlanta victory in 2006. That year, he missed the top 12 but reeled off three wins in the Chase – all at intermediate tracks – including pacing the field for 146 laps at AMS.

Before the points reset last year, Stewart was the regular season leader. Yet he said Sunday that he feels better about his chances in 2010 than he did in 2009. And there’s plenty of stats to back up that statement: after all, runs of 17th, 33rd, 11th and 17th weren’t exactly intimidating his closest rivals heading to the playoffs a year ago. “It’s been a lot of little steps in the last ten to 12 races, I would say, that nobody’s really noticed… but we have noticed it internally,” the driver/owner explained, putting together a much better run towards the Chase this year: sixth, 27th, first since August 15th. “It’s a much better feeling right now this time of year than it was a year ago. I mean, we were on such a high leading the points, and had won races already.”

“But at this stage, we were pointing downhill and this year, I feel like we are pointing uphill. I don’t know if we are – I hope we are not as high as we are going to get on the thing. I think we got room to be better and I think we got guys right now that – nights like tonight are what keep these guys excited about the long hours they are putting in and the hard work they are putting in. When you can help deliver some results like this, it makes those guys work that much harder to keep doing that every week.”

Yes, the summer is a predictable hot streak for Stewart, but this year’s edition may be the best of his career, a remarkable achievement given his hot weather prowess. And this 2010 streak may make Smoke himself the driver to beat as the Chase starts in two weeks.

Stewart entered the first Pocono race in 16th place in the standings with 1,520 points. Since then, he’s scored 1,782 – an average of 148.5 per race – despite not getting into the win column until Sunday. That’s better than any driver on the circuit, lifting him up to fourth in points with just one regular season race remaining. Much of that momentum has come from success at intermediate-style tracks; and, as we all know, five of those are in the Chase.

Stewart finished fifth in the first Michigan race and might have had the car to beat in the second until he and crew chief Darian Grubb’s decision to stay out on older tires backfired as Stewart slid back to sixth. In all, he has finished inside the top 10 within the seven intermediate-style races during that 12-race stretch; overall, six of his seven top-five finishes of the year have come in those events. (For the purposes of this discussion, Pocono is an intermediate style track given its corners)

Stewart and company struggled over the first third of the schedule, but Grubb said that he and Stewart have found a baseline lately, and that baseline seems to be working. It may sound sacrilegious, but it’s almost the same blueprint Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have followed during their four championships.

“That all keys off of Tony’s feedback. That’s the biggest thing I think we have [gained on] lately is we’ve got the feel he likes, and it’s something he can read; if he needs something different, we have found a few things that we can tune to hit those certain spots,” Grubb said.

“It seems to be a little more consistent now. This is the first year we have been able to actually come back with a notebook. Last year, we had our two races here… and in the spring, we had tire issues… so now we were able to come in and say, ‘These things are better, this is what worked the last three times.’ We are just building up our own database. A lot of other teams have already had that for awhile.”

Peaking at the right time? Sounds like a dangerous title contender to me. No one is comparing Grubb and Stewart to Knaus and Johnson, but remember, Grubb worked for the No. 48 team before becoming Stewart’s crew chief. And given Johnson’s moderate vulnerability, there’s plenty of room for a new favorite.

Stewart could be it.

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