DOVER, Del. - When Tony Stewart saw his team celebrating as if it had won a championship, the impact of his sensational start really hit him.
Some members of his crew had never been part of a race winner, or even a top-five finish. Stewart changed that by taking the checkered flag in the all-star race. Afterward, all of his team members told him how much it meant to finally be part of the Victory Lane frivolity.
It made the win all the more satisfying for Stewart - and has to leave Smoke wondering how wild the party might get at Stewart-Haas Racing if he can win his third Cup title.
"It's been a dream season for us up to this point," Stewart said. "You hope that you don't wake up tomorrow and all of a sudden realize that we're just getting ready to go to Daytona."
Stewart has smashed all expectations in his first season as owner and driver for SHR. His second-place finish at Dover on Sunday catapulted him to the top of the Sprint Cup standings, 46 points ahead of Jeff Gordon, going into Sunday's race at Pocono Raceway. He is the first driver/owner to lead the points since Alan Kulwicki won the 1992 Cup championship, a span of 556 races.
Never in Stewart's 10 previous years of Sprint Cup competition has he been this high in points 13 races into the season.
So much for the predictions that he would struggle in his dual role as driver and owner.
Stewart has struck the right balance with three runner-up finishes and only four finishes outside the top 10 all season. The only things that have changed from his days at Joe Gibbs Racing are the car and the crew. He drives like the same old Stewart.
"We want this to be the last 10 races and be talking about this ... but it's a good place to be right now," he said.
Stewart's fast start has helped him stamp the Stewart-Haas team, previously known as Haas CNC, as a contender. Teammate Ryan Newman is a strong fifth in the standings, and it would take a total collapse for both drivers to miss the Chase for the championship.
All that's missing is the points victory.
"I'm enjoying both sides of it. Both sides are fun," Stewart said. "On race weekends, I'm a driver. I'm not a car owner. I've got to go in (the hauler) and work with my crew chief in a minute and figure out how I can get more speed in my car."
Stewart is seeking to become the first owner/driver to win a race since Ricky Rudd at Martinsville in 1998. It could happen at Pocono, where he's posted one career victory and has six top-five finishes in 20 career races.