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Drafting the leader: Defending champ Stewart is second in point standings
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here's the good news for the 42 drivers trying to dethrone Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart: He finally had a bad race, failing to lead a single lap in Richmond and never showing enough muscle to challenge for the victory.
Now the bad news: He still finished sixth.
Stewart's off to an uncharacteristically strong start this season, one that his rivals can't help but notice.
If they aren't yet worried about it, they should be.
"He's a big concern because that team typically doesn't hit its stride until midsummer," four-time series champion Jeff Gordon recently admitted. "But this year, he seems to be overachieving right now. That's really scary because if Tony still has a hot streak in him, he's going to be very, very tough to beat."
Before Saturday night's race in Richmond, Stewart was the only driver to lead at least one lap in every race this season. He was on a streak of four consecutive finishes of third or better, and had flirted with victory in all nine races.
The only disappointment of the season had been an engine failure in California, and it came late when the race was his to lose.
The strong start has moved Stewart to second in the standings, just 55 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson and way ahead of the pace he set in his previous two championship seasons.
Through 10 races last season, Stewart was seventh in the standings and 297 points out. And he was 10th at this point of his 2002 title run.
So what's with the early surge? Not even Stewart knows the answer.
"I wish we knew and I wish we could turn back the clock eight years and start every year this way," he said.
If he could, there's no telling how many championships Stewart might have won by now. But if he can keep up this current pace, he'll be very hard to beat when the Chase for the championship begins in September.
Stewart, 34, remains a realist, knowing that he's far from a lock to become the first driver since Gordon in 1997 and 1998 to win consecutive titles. His fortunes could change with the slightest wobble of the steering wheel, a bad batch of tires or one misplaced part in one of his motors.
"Anything can change week to week, and there's no guarantee that I am going to be good for the next two months," he said.
But he can't overlook his body of work in his first seven Nextel Cup seasons. When the weather turns warm, Stewart has traditionally heated up as well.
"Looking at history, we've always been consistent the middle part of the year and the last part of the year is our strongest," he acknowledged. "That's happened seven straight years, so there's no reason to think we won't do it again this year."
Should he pull it off, Stewart will have to be recognized as one of NASCAR's all-time greatest drivers. He's on the long list already, earning his position with 25 victories and two championships in seven seasons.
But Stewart's slowly pulling away from the competition and establishing himself as the best in his class right now.
Pulling ahead of Gordon
Some may argue that Gordon is still No. 1, but that theory would be based on his previous work. After all, Gordon missed the playoffs last year and was forced to watch from the sidelines as Stewart ran away with the title.
And all of Gordon's championships were won before Stewart's first title, with three of them coming when Gordon was clearly in a class of his own. His talent was untouchable, and his team was revolutionizing the sport with an emphasis on engineering, technology and an efficient pit crew.
Gordon was at the top of his game, and only a handful of drivers could challenge him week in and week out.
Stewart, meanwhile, won both his titles in today's ultra-competitive NASCAR, when 30 or so drivers have a decent chance of winning every week. The competition is equal, the resources the same and just the slightest edge can move a driver to the top of the leaderboard.
His skill is unquestioned, and he's won at every type of track in NASCAR. He's also won at every level and every form of racing.
"There's nothing to get excited about right now," he shrugged. "We're running well at a time of the year we traditionally haven't. We're leading laps. I'm happy about that. But we've still got to keep it perspective, and the fact is the championship is not won right now."