RICHMOND, Va. -- A third of the way through the season, Tony Stewart has found his groove, and once again he used the bright lights of Richmond to declare the race on for the 2001 driver's championship.
A year ago at Richmond International Raceway, Stewart was deprived a good shot at victory by a late pit road incident with Dale Earnhardt Jr. But he still used the race as a springboard, scoring three victories and six top-10 finishes in the next seven races to join the title chase.
This year, the typically slow-starting Stewart is doing it again, and his victory in Saturday night's Pontiac Excitement 400 was the topper, giving him four top-7s in a row and Pontiac its first victory of 2001.
"It's always good to get your first win of the year," he said. "It always seems like it takes us a long time to get that first one, but once we get the first one, they seem to come a little more frequently."
The victory, Stewart's 10th in 79 career starts, boosted him to seventh in the points race, 172 behind front-running Dale Jarrett.
History suggests the best is yet to come.
"I don't have a crystal ball, but if history repeats itself, we've got a lot to look forward to the last half of the season," Stewart said.
The Winston Cup series takes the next weekend off for its traditional Mother's Day break, then heads for Charlotte, N.C., for The Winston.
In that time, Jarrett and his crew are sure to try to figure out how his Ford ran out of gas during a three-minute red flag delay Saturday.
Jarrett was running eighth at the time, but had to be pushed all the way around the track for a splash of gas and wound up in 15th place.
Jarrett called it a miscalculation, and it helped narrow his lead over second-place finisher Jeff Gordon from 66 to 14.
Rusty Wallace finished third and also moved up to third in the points race, now just 48 back, and that was after he and Gordon renewed their short-track rivalry during a two-lap shootout to decide the winner.
Stewart got a good jump on the restart to maintain his lead, and Wallace used a better run to catch Gordon heading into the first turn. When Wallace pulled inside Gordon, both cars drifted high in the second turn because they were on old, cold tires, and Stewart was all alone.
The battle happened in the same area where Wallace bumped Gordon into the wall a few years ago, costing him a shot at victory. This time, the drivers had a heated exchange, then shook hands and left it behind them.
"He just basically lost it and I was his cushion," Gordon said.
"Ain't much to it. Just a little fender banging," said Wallace.
And Stewart, because he was in front of it all, went on to win, adding his name to the others in the thick of the championship chase.