DOVER, Del. -- The Rushville Rocket is back, and now Tony Stewart doesn't have to explain where he has been hiding this season.
Stewart's disappointing second year, marked by the kind of failures he rarely experienced as the top Winston Cup rookie, took an upward turn Sunday with a victory in the MBNA Platinum 400.
''We've had some ups and downs lately,'' Stewart said. ''We need to have more days like this, but I'll trade wins for consistency,''
Stewart came into the race at Dover Downs International Speedway 10th in the series standings, but had failed to finish three times after just one DNF all last year. He set rookie records with three wins and a fourth-place finish in points in 1999.
''We want to win more races, but need to finish in the top five, and if we do, the points will take care of themselves,'' he said.
That's exactly what happened Sunday, when Stewart dominated both The Monster Mile and the competition, leading 242 of 400 laps.
''We had an unbelievable car,'' he said ''We never had to change anything but air pressure.''
The only real problem for Stewart was the possibility he would be beaten on fuel mileage, as he was a year ago by current points leader and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte.
But Kyle Petty, driving in relief of teammate John Andretti, tapped Sterling Marlin, who spun and brought out a caution flag with nine laps remaining.
After another caution, rookie Matt Kenseth made a run at Stewart, but was unable to pass him with 13 laps to go.
''On the restart, I held it wide open in one and two, and down the backstretch, trying to get a run on him,'' said Kenseth, who got his breakthrough victory a week earlier in Concord, N.C. ''I just didn't have enough to beat him.''
Stewart, who had crashed in two races and blown an engine in another, had few problems this time. He started 16th in his Pontiac, passed Jeremy Mayfield for the lead on lap 107 and toyed with the field most of the time thereafter.
By the halfway point there was no question that Stewart was the car to beat.
''We had a car that could drive away from everybody,'' he said.
The 29-year-old driver from Rushville, Ind., out of the lead only because of pit stops in the second half of the event went to the front for the final time on the 337th lap, and beat Kenseth's Ford by 1.215 seconds.
Labonte finished third, followed by the Fords of series champion Dale Jarrett and teammate Ricky Rudd.
''We were happy to come home in the top five,'' said Labonte, who leads Ward Burton by 82 points in the standings.
Like Labonte, who went the final 107 laps last year without a stop, Jarrett had won in 1998 with a 101-lap run. Knowing he couldn't outrun those ahead of him, he was going to try it again.
''We were going to try to steal it,'' he said. ''But it wasn't meant to be.
''The best car won, and that's the way it should be.''
Stewart, who led four times, averaged 109.514 mph in a race slowed by caution 10 times for times for 58 laps -- both records for 400 miles at Dover. There were 14 lead changes among 10 drivers.
Stewart earned $152,830 in the $3.2 million event, and the victory moved him up a spot in the points race to ninth.
The reaction of the crowd also made him feel good. Stewart, booed on the last stop of the circuit in Concord, said his position on NASCAR fans had been misrepresented.
''To have people stand up and cheer, that's much better than the trophy and the money,'' he said. ''It's literally been hell for me over what one guy wrote.''
Mark Martin, who has won the last three September races at Dover, blew an engine and finished 36th. He fell two spots to fifth in the standings.
Jarrett moved from sixth to fourth. Seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt, who finished a lap down in sixth, moved up two spots in the standings to third.
With the victory, Stewart became the 12th driver to win in the first 13 races. Only rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won twice.
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