Stewart shows championship form

On the heels of the most remarkable championship run in recent NASCAR history, with a change in team leadership and facing the most competitive race fields in memory, Tony Stewart still shows no signs of conceding his title reign.

Stewart earned his third victory of the season Saturday night in a crazy, wild, but oh-so-typical race at Daytona International Speedway – the win tying him with Brad Keselowski for the most of the season. Stewart held that honor on his own last year when he reeled off five victories in a 10-race season-ending championship run.

If the pressure of defending a championship, the uncertainty of having a new crew chief calling the shots, the duties of owning a team or the challenge of an ultra-competitive field was supposed to slow down Stewart, it hasn’t.

He’s in championship form and it’s barely summer – the time of the year Stewart traditionally gets as hot as the temperatures.

“I’m really proud of (crew chief) Steve (Addington), everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing and the Hendrick engine and chassis department; I’m really pleased with the first half of the season,’’ said Stewart, who’s ranked fifth in points but, as it stands, would start the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup ranked first because of his three victories.

As impressive as the win tally is the fact it could be much higher. Stewart has three third-place finishes and a pair of runner-ups to go with those trophies – the most top-three finishes in the series.

It’s the five sub-20th place showings that have tempered the team’s emotions. But a win like Saturday’s delivers a strong a message. He drove through the field –having to start from the back after failing post-qualifying inspection – and got the best of the two guys who have led the championship all season, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle.

“I think there were some races that we lost opportunities on but some races that we capitalized on that we hadn’t been able to in the past,’’ Stewart said contemplating his track record.

And he’s not the only one in the organization who sees this win as a sign of things to come. Teammate Ryan Newman finished fifth Saturday night – and points out just how good this team can be in the races to come.

“Well it was big for us, especially with the stretch coming up," he said. "Loudon (NH) is a place which us at Stewart-Haas have done an awesome job at in the past, we look forward to going there."

As to Stewart, he left Daytona pleased with his effort – and with where the team is heading.

“I think on the average we’re really looking good right now. I’m leaving here with a big weight lifted off our shoulders,’’ Stewart said. “I’m really proud of everybody in our organization.

“I feel like that we showed some strength today.’’