HAMPTON, GA. (AP) - 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.