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Smoke Rising

by Monte Dutton

HAMPTON, Ga.

— Is Tony Stewart making the kind of late emergence that could win him a third Sprint Cup championship?

Stewart, 39, won the Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. His average finish in the past 11 races is 9.18. He finally broke into the winner’s column.

After winning for the first time this year, Stewart actually said he felt better about this season — fourth in points, one win, two poles — than last season, where at this point he had 3,694 points (109 more than Kevin Harvick’s total now) and three wins. Stewart led the points by 237 then. He trails Harvick by 283 now.

Yet Stewart said after winning the Emory Healthcare 500 that a year ago, he was leading the points and headed downhill, while, this year, he’s trailing but reeling in other contenders by leaps and bounds.

“I don’t know if we have peaked,” said Stewart. “How do you know when you’ve peaked? I guess if you’re winning every week, you feel like you’re peaking to a certain degree…. It’s been a lot of little steps in the last 10 to 12 races.

“At this stage [in 2009], we were pointing downhill, and this year, I feel like we are pointing uphill.”

Statistics do show that the first two finishers in Sunday night’s race are the most consistent in the Sprint Cup Series… recently.

Carl Edwards’ average finish over the past eight races is 5.0, but Edwards hasn’t yet won.

Now Stewart has won. And he is hot. “Nobody’s really noticed it, but we have noticed it internally,” he said. “It’s a much better feeling right now this time of year than it was a year ago.”

Really? “We were on such a high, leading the points, and had won races already,” Stewart insisted.

Both Stewart and his team are flushed with success at the moment, and with the Chase for the Sprint Cup about to commence, it’s not a bad place to be.

Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (NC) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week (nascar.rbma.com) features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at nascar_thisweek@yahoo.com. ‘ 2010 King Features Syndicate

Owner-driver Tony Stewart broke into the win column at Atlanta recently, putting him in a prime position for the Chase. (John Clark/NASCAR This Week photo)

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