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Posted: March 10, 2009 5:47 p.m.

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Stewart's run indicative of former champ's grit

Amanda Briggs/

Stewart made up a lap on his own while clawing his way to an eighth place finish Sunday

Let’s be honest for a moment. How many NASCAR fans thought Tony Stewart would be sitting 113 points behind Jeff Gordon and sixth in Sprint Cup points at this point in the season? Hands, anyone?

After leaving the comfy confines of Joe Gibbs Racing for his own gig, Stewart has far exceeded expectations of a first-year owner/operator. Sunday’s eighth-place finish in the Kobalt Tools 500 is just the latest example of how determined the two-time Cup champion really is.

If you watched Sunday’s race, you know what I mean. For those of you who missed it, Stewart fell two laps off the pace during the first part of the race only to rally to his third top-10 of the season. What’s more, he did it the hard way.

Early on in Sunday’s race, things didn’t look good. Stewart was one of several drivers to go down two laps after a freak caution on lap 87 during green flag pit stops completely changed the race. The No. 14 Office Depot Chevy didn’t look that fast and after starting 11th, Stewart had fallen as far down to 20th before pitting in 18th, with leader and eventual race winner Kurt Busch about to put him a lap down. From then on, it was an uphill battle.

Stewart eventually worked himself into position to race Busch for one of his laps back and that’s exactly what he did. After starting on the inside of Busch after a caution, Stewart fell in line behind the No. 2 Dodge but slowly reeled it back in and made the pass. Amazingly, nobody had anything for Busch all day save for Gordon who passed him once under green before. But Stewart wheeled his car clear of Busch and ran ahead of the leaders until he caught a caution to put him down one lap. For a fleeting moment, he was the fastest car on the track.

From there, he eventually managed to get his other lap back via the free pass. Not bad for a guy that isn’t supposed to do much in 2009.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Stewart’s fans is the speed both he and teammate Ryan Newman have shown thus far. Notoriously not a great qualifier, Stewart came into the season outside of the top-35 and needing to qualify for races on speed. While he’s had the luxury of the past-champion's provisional to fall back on, he hasn’t needed it. Whether it’s pride or determination, Stewart has made every race on time and has actually qualified better this season than he did in the No. 20 Toyota last year. Atlanta was the latest example as he put the No. 14 Chevy 11th, one spot ahead of Newman, who by the way owns the track record for career poles along with Buddy Baker with seven.

Nobody was going to touch Busch on Sunday. Shades of the Gibbs glory days at Atlanta Motor Speedway that saw Bobby Labonte win six times and Stewart traditionally ran out to huge leads only to lose them at the end, the Miller Lite team hit on the setup and had the field covered. That didn’t matter. Stewart-Haas Racing must walk before it can run.

Last week’s finish at Las Vegas, where the No. 14 team stumbled to a 26th place finish is perhaps more of what some expected. Nevertheless, Stewart ran in the top-10 all day before a loose wheel forced him to pit twice under green and lose two laps.

The truth is Stewart is sitting sixth for a reason. He’s motivated and is still one of the most talented drivers on the planet, but even more, he has fast cars. So far Newman has show good speed at time too, but only Mark Martin has had worse luck.

The first five races were supposed to be the period where Stewart shook the No. 14 car down and worked himself into the top-35 in owner’s points. Instead, like he’s shown his entire career, Smoke won’t settle for anything short of winning races. Now that he’s proven the cars are fast and everyone seems to have forgotten he’s not driving the No. 20 car anymore, it seems as though its business as usual. That could mean a win here in the next two or three races. Stewart has won at the next six tracks and has had good success at Martinsville which comes up in three weeks.

Notoriously a slow starter, Stewart is actually having a better season than 2008. After the circuit left Atlanta a year ago, he sat 140 points back, in eighth place. In fact, he hasn’t started this well since 2004 when he sat second behind Matt Kenseth after Atlanta.

The stats say Stewart is on his game. He’s qualifying near the top-15 every week and crew chief Darian Grubb is making adjustments to the car that keep him in the top-10 on Sundays. And while many felt he’d be doing well to be inside the top-15 in points at this juncture of the season, Stewart showed on Sunday he’s got plenty of drive left. It should make for an interesting year.

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