DARLINGTON, S.C. -- When Cale Yarborough finished last at the 1976 Daytona 500, he bounced back with nine victories to win the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.
That's why Tony Stewart didn't need to panic after his engine lasted only two full laps at this year's Daytona 500.
In the three races that followed the season-opener, Stew art climbed in the point standings from 43rd to 22nd to 11th to fifth.
For Stewart, a notoriously slow starter, three consecutive top-five finishes have put him where everyone expected him in the championship race.
For other top contenders, the rally has yet to materialize.
Stewart, Sterling Marlin, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnh ardt Jr., Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and defending champion Jeff Gor don all were the odds-on favorites to win the 2002 series title.
But of that group, only Marlin and Stewart are among the top-10 in the rankings heading into Sunday's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway.
As curious as the failures of the top contenders are, the early success of two rookies and a second-year driver who defies the notion of any sophomore jinxes are equally as intriguing.
Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson, both rookies, are solidly in the top 10: Newman is in second place, and Johnson is in 10th. Kurt Busch, a rookie in 2001 with no top-10 finishes, is seventh.
''It's just a natural progression,'' Newman said.
Gordon, who in 2001 won his fourth championship in seven seasons, is 11th in the standings. He has yet to score a top-five finish this year.
Many contend it's too early to get excited about the points race, especially because there are still 32 more races.
But championship seasons, and failures, have to start somewhere.
''I think every team here thinks they're capable of winning races and championships,'' Newman said. ''We're in good position right now, and we just need to focus on keeping that position and doing better. Other teams are going to get better because they got off to a bad start.
''Look at the 20 car (Tony Stewart). He got off to a bad start at Daytona, but he's had two top-fives in the next two races, and he won last weekend (at Atlanta). That's hard to contend with sometimes. He's capable of running in the top five every week, and we are, too. We just need to do that.''
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and Ryan Newman, right, talk on pit row during qualifying at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., Friday, March 8, 2002, for Sunday's MBNA America 500. Bill Elliott took the pole, Newman qualified second and Earnhardt qualified third.
AP Photo/Ric Feld
Not since Alan Kulwicki won the championship in 1992 has it been so easy to be a Winston Cup Series champion. Gordon's title run a year ago was earned with the second-fewest points-a-race average since the series went to its current system in 1975.
Kulwicki won with 4,078 points in a 29-race schedule for an average of 140.62 points a race. Two other drivers were within 63 points of the title, including Bill Elliott. Elliott's total of 4,068 points created the smallest winning margin in the sport's history.
A year ago, Gordon didn't have any serious challengers in the second half of the season. And yet, he wound up with 5,112 points in a 36-race schedule for a 142-point-a-race average.
Apparently, it won't be that easy this year, especially with the point standings so muddled with a mix of fast, un proven youngsters and slow-starting veterans.
''I'm looking at it from (the perspective of) top-fives,'' Stewart said. ''We've been in the top five the last three weeks, so that right there makes me extremely excited about the possibility of what might lay ahead of us. We've just got to keep our nose to the ground and keep pushing.
''We've just got to go out and do what we've been doing the past three weeks. If we can be consistent and be in the top-five week-in and week-out, we're going to keep knocking those points down.''
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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