Stewart nabs 1st win of the season to move into title-contending form

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Tony Stewart went to Atlanta Motor Speedway mired in a 31-race winless streak and an afterthought, at best, on the list of championship contenders.

By the time he left the track early Monday morning he may very well have become the front-runner for the Sprint Cup Series title.

The streakiest driver in NASCAR knocked down his first win of the season late Sunday night with a dominating performance at Atlanta, and based on Stewart's own track record, he's got to be considered a credible contender. When Smoke gets hot — and he usually does every summer — he is very, very hard to beat.

He won three times in a nine-race span last season to move to the top of the points standings, won three of four in the middle of the 2007 season, and three of six in 2006 when he failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Now Stewart rolls into Richmond International Raceway, site of Saturday night's "regular season finale," with nothing to lose. He can gamble and race hard for a win, and with it 10 more critical bonus points, and take a ton of momentum into the Sept. 19 Chase opener at New Hampshire.

It's a far different situation than last season, when Stewart built a monstrous lead in the points standings but cooled off considerably around the start of the Chase. He had four-straight finishes outside the top-10 heading into the Chase, and opened the 10-race title deciding format with a disappointing 14th-place finish.

"At this stage last year, we were pointing downhill," Stewart said, "and now we're pointing uphill."

That's a good thing for NASCAR, which needs Stewart to be competitive to keep interest piqued.

He's no Dale Earnhardt Jr. in terms of fan popularity, and his star isn't as bright as four-time champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. But with his super-sized personality — and temper — he keeps things interesting and is one of the few drivers who can legitimately mix it up at every race track on the circuit.

It was interesting earlier this season to watch individual drivers take their turn dominating the series. First it was Johnson, winner of three of the first five races and back-to-back victories in June. Then Denny Hamlin reeled off five wins in 10 races, and Kevin Harvick put up a steady string of consistent finishes, along with three victories, to take command of the points standings.

But it all lacked the oomph that Stewart packs. Win, lose or crash trying, with Stewart in the mix, everything is amped up another level.

Of course, that slump he carried into the Chase last year followed him into this season and prevented Stewart from making much noise on or off the track. In fact, when he left Richmond three months ago, a lap down and with a noncompetitive 23rd-place finish, he fully admitted he and crew chief Darian Grubb were "in the Twilight Zone" when it came to their cars, their setups and their overall direction at Stewart-Haas Racing.

"We're confused," Stewart said a few days after Richmond. "Darian and I are both confused with what's going on and why it's going on."

It was much of the same the next week at Darlington, another 23rd-place finish and a lap down from the winner, but it's been game-on since late May as Stewart has steadily turned it around. Stewart has finished outside the top-10 only three times in the 14 races since Darlington, a span in which he criticized his fellow competitors for "idiotic" restarts after a third-place finish at Pocono and vowed to raise his game another level.

"For anybody that's looking for drama for the next couple races, start looking cause I can promise I'm going to start making the highlight reel the next couple weeks," Stewart said in June.

That's the kind of chutzpah NASCAR needs, and Stewart is capable of delivering on a regular basis. He's not nearly as polarizing as Kyle Busch, who brings a weekly diet of vim and vigor to each track.

But it could be said that Busch learned much of his behaviors from Stewart, who was NASCAR's resident Bad Boy when young Kyle was still in high school. And while Stewart can still be a cantankerous hothead, his delivery is far more refined than Busch, who makes more missteps than Stewart ever did in his early days of railing against the establishment.

With two titles already under his belt, the 2002 championship under the old points system and the second, in 2005, under the Chase format, Stewart could be the one driver capable of dethroning Johnson's run of four consecutive Cups. Although Harvick, Gordon, Busch, Hamlin and Carl Edwards are certainly capable contenders, all have questions marks spanning anything from equipment reliability, maturity, performance capabilities and past experience — all of which will be needed to beat Johnson during a final 10-week run.

If Grubb and Co. truly have Stewart back on the right track — and it sure looked that way after Stewart lead a race-high 176 laps and overcoming a series of poor restarts to hold off Edwards and Johnson at Atlanta — he just might very well be the guy who turns the heat up over the final three months.