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Tony Stewart just getting warmed up

So what's with Tony Stewart? I don't mean JUST that the longtime Mr. Summertime waited to explode as Mr. Autumn last year and now, suddenly, after 13 years of slow starts, is rushing on as a torrent of spring.

What I mean is, what if he puts all three together? Just how scary dominant could he be this year?

If you combine his two wins in five races this season with his five-for-10 onslaught in the Chase last fall, he has won seven of the past 15 Cup races, a winning average of .467.

I'm not saying this is likely, but should he continue at that rate, he would win 14 more races this season for a total of 16, obliterating the modern-era record of 13 shared by Jeff Gordon (1998) and Richard Petty (1975). Even at this season's clip, .400, he still would win 12 more races and take sole possession of the record at 14 (his car number, in honor of his mentor, A.J. Foyt).

Highly unlikely, granted. Drivers just don't stay that hot that long.

Yet somehow you sense that Stewart is just getting warmed up -- even a sense that, pushing age 41 (May 20), Stewart is just now peaking.

After 17 years of turbulence, on peaks and in valleys, from Indy cars to NASCAR, from the blinding limelight on the Indianapolis 500's star rookie in 1996 through many a transition, many an angry outburst, much time spent on the carpet with NASCAR, with self-and-opponent-destructive paybacks scattered here and there, Anthony Wayne Stewart might just now be peaking.

"I turned 40 last year and I'm definitely not losing anything with age," he said in a TV interview in the rain at Fontana, Calif., last Sunday.

Keep in mind that Stewart tends to be quite understated when he's in a chipper mood, which he was. Between the lines and in the tone was that he's not only not losing anything, he's gaining.

On the tracks his reflexes seem sharper and better put to use than ever. He is driving smarter, wilier than ever. Put all that together and he's making moves on racetracks reminiscent of the storied Silver Fox himself, David Pearson, who in 1973 won 11 of 18 starts, still the highest batting average of the modern era -- and even some moves Pearson would have avoided because the risk by calculation was too high.

Not the least of these are "slide jobs," an opponent-infuriating, but legal, technique Stewart brings from the dirt tracks, both of his youth and his recreational time today. You dive beneath the car ahead, and the instant you're past, you let your car slide right up in front of his nose so that he has an instantaneous decision to make: back off or wreck you both.

For doing just that, just last Sunday, he got an angry kick in the butt of his car from Kevin Harvick.

Yeah, well ... Stewart traveled on unperturbed to run down Kyle Busch and win the race.

With that he snuffed any lingering criticism -- including mine -- about cutting loose Darian Grubb, the crew chief who steered him through their magnificent Chase last year. And he sealed the wisdom of his decision to hire Steve Addington, the pit boss most qualified to handle any outburst, having served both Brothers Busch, first Kyle, then Kurt.

As my colleague Terry Blount pointed out in his race coverage, it doesn't seem to matter who the crew chief is, what the weather is like, which track it is -- Smoke at 40 just keeps pouring it on, exuding sheer willpower as he goes.

Sunday he rolls into Martinsville, Va., onto the Cup tour's tiniest speedway, long supposed to be owned by Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, and before that Jeff Gordon.

Yet who has to be a favorite? Smoke, because he won there last fall, where he wasn't supposed to.

A win Sunday would put him at .500 for this season, 3-for-6, and bring him back to .500, 8-for-16, since Chicagoland last Sept. 19.

Let's project that he doesn't sputter much, that he continues at anything anywhere near this pace, and repeats as champion for his fourth career Cup.

How would NASCAR Nation, which is notoriously prickly toward overdogs, like that?

They'd love it.

I don't think they're fed up with dominance so much as young-gun dominance. They can relate to Stewart, who is right around the age of the average NASCAR enthusiast, and who came up through hard knocks, like them.

Last year he became the first Cup champion over 40 since Dale Jarrett in 1999, and this reign, like Jarrett's, seems resoundingly popular.

Back when the delightful conflict between whippersnapper Jeff Gordon and the aging Dale Earnhardt was in flower with the fans, General Motors had a racing engineer who seemed to be as good at sociology on the side as mathematics on the job. I won't name him because this comes from casual conversation, away from his job description.

One day at Indianapolis, one of the few places Gordon was cheered as much as Earnhardt, I asked rhetorically why Gordon caught fan wrath nationwide while Earnhardt basked in adoration.

"Because," the engineer-philosopher said, "the average ticket-buyer in the stands is in his 40s, like Earnhardt. And he's been through hard knocks, like Earnhardt. They can look at him and think, 'If ol' Dale can make it, up from nothing, maybe there's still hope for me.'

"But Gordon has already accomplished more, and made more money, in his 20s, than the average fan in the stands can ever hope to accomplish. They can't go back to their 20s. They can't relate."

Now they can relate to ol' Smoke, and, as with Earnhardt, in more ways than age.

Most of today's winners have images as test-tube-developed drivers, from preschool, usually by fathers and stepfathers: Gordon, Johnson, both Busch boys, even Stewart's teammate, Ryan Newman.

Stewart was out on his own at age 19, because his parents had run out of money to support his racing -- and that hadn't been much money in the first place. He worked blue-collar day jobs to pay for his night racing on dirt. Famously he drove a tow truck up and down Georgetown Road past Indianapolis Motor Speedway, "wondering what it must be like to go 200 miles an hour just 200 yards across those grandstands," he once said.

Indy could be enormously expensive rent-a-rides in those days -- you had to bring either huge sponsorship or millions in family fortune -- so he was ignored by the barons of CART, brilliant as he was in midgets and sprint cars.

Finally, working in a machine shop, he got the call to be the poster boy for the fledgling Indy Racing League, founded on the notion -- although it didn't last -- of giving opportunities to bootstraps racers off heartland short tracks.

Never has an Indy 500 rookie been so mobbed and overwhelmed by media and public as Stewart, at 25, in 1996, was in the days following the death of his senior teammate, Scott Brayton, in a crash during practice, at the very outbreak of the great civil war between the IRL and CART.

Brayton's death moved the rookie from the middle of the front row onto the pole, and so the limelight shone on him as a horrific laser, almost a death ray, burning, bewildering, blinding, and he snarled back out of the sheer personal pain of it all.

That was the traumatic root, I've long believed, of an oft-stormy relationship with the media that has eased only in recent years, since Stewart has become an owner-driver. Still he'll stick a reporter with a barb in a heartbeat, but that's now more in fun than ire.

Not since Earnhardt has a driver allowed us media types to get to know him so well, know that he hides nothing, wears his every thought on his sleeve.

In ways he remains youthful -- with his humor, with his reluctance to marry when there are so many lovely ladies about. (Last year, down the championship stretch, he kidded Carl Edwards about being tied to a wife while Stewart leaves his options open.)

Here you have an honest man the media can work with, and the public can relate to, and he is peaking at the right age at the right moment.

So all you 40-plus types who say so often that NASCAR isn't what it used to be, just know that now is as near as you're going to get to going back.