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Tony Stewart, atop the NASCAR standings halfway through the race to the chase: Title #3 in the wind?

The King and his court? Tony Stewart (R) holds court for (L-R) Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   DOVER, Del.
   Darned if that Tony Stewart doesn't have his act together.
   Like, really together.
   New team, new owner – himself – new teammate, Ryan Newman….and just a dozen races out of the box and Stewart is atop NASCAR's Sprint Cup standings.
   And that's what he can boast about on HBO's Wednesday night special, Prelude to the Dream,' at his Eldora Speedway ($24.95 PPV, 7 p.m EDT)….after he finishes a couple of days testing tires for Goodyear at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
   Stewart, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer are expect to run in the Late Model dirt race, for charity.
   Then it's on to Pocono…and Stewart is clearly set to become the first independent owner-driver to win a points-paying Cup event since Ricky Rudd did it way back when -- 1998.
   Now this is no Alan Kulwicki shoestring operation, no Underdog here. Stewart has the hefty backing and technical support of Rick Hendrick, no less.
   Still, making something happen in this sport these days, even if you've been around a while and have good engineers and money, isn't easy.
   And doing it from the wheel of a race car?
   Well, credit team manager Bobby Hutchens, of course. And the team's two solid – and rather unsung – crew chiefs, Darian Grubb and Tony Gibson.
    Stewart won the Charlotte All-star race two weeks ago, and he came within a moment here Sunday of his first tour win as owner-driver, in an exciting three-car battle to the wire with Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle. The second was his sixth top-five of the yea.
    Stewart seems a little nonplused by it, perhaps, and maybe it's just the grind of the season that keeps him from getting overly emotional.
   Still, "It's been a dream season for us up to this point, and you hope you don't wake up tomorrow and all of a sudden realize that we're just getting ready to go to Daytona and it's all been a dream," Stewart said with a grin after taking a 46 point lead over Jeff Gordon (who crashed Friday and had a generally woeful weekend from there).
   "I'm proud of our entire organization," Stewart said. "To get caught up like we had to do, through the winter, with the personnel changes and updating equipment….it took a lot to get everything ready for Daytona, let alone to keep it ready and keep us going each week. 
   "We probably all lost bets that at this point we would be this far along.  But it's a good bet to lose."
   Now Stewart maybe didn't really have a second-place car, but a cool two-tire pit stop call with 35 miles to go by Grubb gave Stewart track position, second behind Biffle.
    "It was the perfect call," Stewart said. "We decided to take a gamble. 
    "We were going to just stay out (and not pit), and then Darian called us at the last minute to do two. 
    "We weren't that fast a car, but it got us the track position we needed."
   Stewart got around Biffle on lap 392 of the 400, and then tried desperately to hold off hard-charging Johnson, who finally got around him with two to go.
    "Jimmie had the fastest car…and when you're coming as fast as he was, it was just a matter of his getting the opening he needed," Stewart said.  "We did everything we could to take his line away as often as we could, but we just couldn't do it long enough."
    Newman had another good run himself, eighth – his fifth straight top-10, putting him fifth in the Cup standings…another rather remarkable piece to this whole story.
    Typically the men who are in the top-12 at this point in the year, 13 races into the 26-race regular season, are the ones who make the September cut for the chase.

I'm eating crow daily in

I'm eating crow daily in regards to Stewart-Haas. I never saw it working this well, and definitely not this soon. With that said, he'd got a lot more backing from Chevy than other Hendrick sub-teams had and to his credit he hired a lot of knowhow, including driver-engineer Newman. I see a win coming before The Chase for one of the Stewart-Haas drivers.

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