HAMPTON, Ga. – One more race to go until the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and all of a sudden Tony Stewart looks like a serious contender.
Only it's not that sudden.
Stewart has been steadily improving over the past couple of months, consistently running in the top 10 and seeming to find a little bit more speed every week. He figured it was just a matter of time before he finally got back to Victory Lane.
That breakthrough came Sunday night, when Stewart claimed his first win of the season with a dominating performance at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"We've kind of been silent every weekend, but we've been gaining on it," he said. "It was not a one-week increment where we had a big change. We've been taking a lot of little steps the last 10 to 12 races. Nobody's really noticed it, but we've noticed. We have a much better feeling than we did compared to this time last year."
He led more laps (176) in the Emory Healthcare 500 than everyone else combined and pulled away from Carl Edwards on the last restart to win by a comfortable 1.316 seconds. Stewart snapped a streak of 31 races without a win — the second-longest drought of his 12-year Cup career, surpassed only by a 43-race stretch over the 2007-08 seasons.
But he's been one of the most consistent racers in the series since a sluggish start. Ten of the last 12 races have resulted in top-10 finishes, and clearly he hasn't forgotten how to win, either.
Now comes the Chase, in which the 39-year-old Stewart will be seeking his third career championship but first as a car owner.
"I don't know if we have peaked yet," he said. "I think we've got room to be better."
There won't be all that much drama in next weekend's race at Richmond, essentially the regular-season finale. Stewart is among 10 drivers who've already clinched spots in the 12-man Chase, led by points leader Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.
Stewart is fourth, followed by Edwards, Jeff Burton, four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. Still looking to lock up spots at Richmond are No. 11 Greg Biffle and No. 12 Clint Bowyer, each of whom would only fall out with an unprecedented collapse.
Bowyer has a 117-point lead on No. 13 Ryan Newman and merely needs to finish 28th at Richmond to clinch his spot. Sentimental favorite Mark Martin, trying to win his first Cup championship at age 51, slipped a spot in the standings and is now 15th — a daunting 147 points out of the playoff.
The final caution of the night came out after Newman made contact with Kasey Kahne, nearly causing a crash on the backstretch.
Stewart was out front when the green came back out with 19 laps to go, and he zoomed off the line to beat Edwards into the first corner. From there, the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy steadily pulled away for his first victory since Oct. 4, 2009, at Kansas.
Johnson was third, followed by Burton and Kyle Busch.
"I didn't hit a restart all night until right there at the end," Stewart said. "I've never been so happy with a win in my life."
Edwards is winless since the 2008 season finale, but he led more laps in Atlanta (32) than he had in the last 46 races combined. That gives him plenty of confidence that he can contend for his first series title, the one that slipped away two years ago despite nine wins.
"Tony just had such a fast car at the end, but we're back," Edwards said. "I know we don't look as good as we did in 2008, but we're better prepared to race for the championship."
Johnson also is headed back to the Chase, giving him a shot to add to an already unprecedented streak of Cup titles.
"This is a huge relief for myself and this team," he said. "That was so much fun. That was the way racing should be. Even at the end, we were trying to run (Edwards) down. We were racing hard with these guys. That says a lot about the 48 team going forward."
It wasn't such a good night for pole winner Hamlin, who had vowed to shake out of his midseason slump with a couple of strong performances going into the Chase.
He had plenty of speed, leading 74 laps, but the engine didn't hold out on his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Coming to the start-finish line on the 143rd lap, Hamlin's car suddenly started billowing smoke, sending him spinning into the infield grass.
He wound up last in the 43-car field and slipped five places in the standings to 10th.
"At this point, I'm so lucky that there's no more races before the Chase cutoff or else we'd be in danger of missing it," Hamlin said. "It's very discouraging, but I just know we can get it together."
He has struggled since a five wins-in-10-races stretch earlier in the season. He knew he might be in trouble again when he heard that teammate Joey Logano had blown a cylinder.
Not long after workers cleaned up the mess from Hamlin's spin, the first big crash of the race took out Biffle and Elliott Sadler.
Newman charged up to make it three-wide racing going into turn three and Biffle didn't realize the No. 39 car was there. Biffle went into a spin and slid down the banking, where he clipped Sadler trying to go low. That turned Sadler's car up into the outside wall for a hard lick, but the padded barrier ensured there were no injuries.
Luckily for Harvick, he barely missed the crash diving inside of Sadler.
Harvick's luck ran out when he messed up an attempt to dive down pit road. He wound up damaging his left front tire and had problems the rest of the night, finally parking his car in 33rd place.