Stewart wins Chase opener

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 20, 2011

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
JOLIET, Ill. — Tony Stewart took himself out of title contention before the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
A topsy-turvy season led the two-time NASCAR champion to cross his name off the list of drivers he believes are legitimate title contenders, and nothing he did on track at Chicagoland Speedway changed his mind.
That includes winning.
Stewart picked up his first win of the season Monday — a day after rain washed out the opening round of the 10-race Chase — by flawlessly conserving fuel to the finish. The victory, his 40th career win in the Cup Series, tied him with Mark Martin for 16th on the all-time wins list.
More importantly, it vaulted him from ninth in the standings to second, and he trails leader Kevin Harvick by a mere seven points.
So, Smoke, you sure you aren’t in the mix for a third NASCAR championship?
“One day doesn’t change the whole season,” he said.
Stewart, who likely benefited the most from the rain out because he was plagued with a migraine headache all day Sunday, seemed subdued in his victory celebration. He’s had, by his own admission, “a rough year,” and it was just last month when he said the No. 14 team didn’t even deserve a spot in the Chase.
But his Stewart-Haas Racing team has turned it up a notch, evidenced by three-straight top-10 finishes and, on Monday, the end of a 32-race losing streak. Round 2 of the Chase shifts to New Hampshire, where Ryan Newman led a 1-2 finish for SHR in July.
So Stewart may not like his title chances, but this recent upswing has crew chief Darian Grubb believing the team is in the mix.
“That’s Tony’s mind-set,” Grubb said. “We all work too hard to ever come to feeling that way.”
His rivals tend to agree with Grubb.
“If you believed him when he said (that) … you’ve never raced Tony Stewart,” said Steve Letarte, crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. “He’s a master of deflection. He seems to always be there.”
“Counting Tony Stewart out? That’s pretty funny that he counts himself out,” added Harvick.
But there are likely some drivers wondering if Chicago didn’t crush their title chances.
While Stewart was able to stretch his gas to the finish — ironic, since he ran out of gas while leading with one lap to go in last year’s Chase opener at New Hampshire — at least five Chase drivers ran their tanks dry in the closing laps.
Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, points leader Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon were among the drivers who ran out of gas on the last lap, and all plummeted in the final finishing order.
Harvick, who started the race tied with Busch for the points lead, held on for second after his crew chief told him to run wide open and not worry about fuel.
“When he turned me loose, I probably should have just listened to him, I was really gun shy,” said Harvick, who called the closing laps “nerve-racking.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. capitalized other drivers’ fuel problems to finish third, his best showing since he was second at Kansas 14 weeks ago. The strong result pushed him from 10th to fifth in the standings.
“Obviously we gained a lot of spots there at the end with guys that were short of fuel,” said Earnhardt, “but we were running really well at the end.”
Johnson wound up 10th, and dropped two spots to eighth in the standings.
“I really felt like I had done enough,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what I did so desperately wrong.”
Matt Kenseth led four times for 46 laps, had to save gas at the end and still ran out.
Even worse, because JJ Yeley pushed him across the finish line — apparently in eighth-place — NASCAR ruled the last-lap assistance was illegal and dropped Kenseth to 21st in the final running order.
“I don’t know what to do about the fuel mileage,” said Kenseth, the pole-sitter, who dropped six spots in the standings to 10th.
“It is really frustrating to be a race car driver and they drop the green on the last run of the day when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans, and you have to run half throttle and can’t floor it or you will run out of gas. It is pretty aggravating to do all the work and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments but none of it makes a difference.”
Kyle Busch, who began the day tied with Harvick for the points lead, ran out of gas and finish 22nd. He’s now ninth in points.
“I saved as much fuel as I could, but I guess it just wasn’t enough and we ran out with two to go,” said Busch. “Just really disappointing day.”
Same for Jeff Gordon, who rallied back into the top-10 from an early tire issue, only to run out of gas and finish 24th. He dropped from third in points to 11th.
“It was definitely not the race we wanted to start the Chase off with,” Gordon said. “We’re going to fight like crazy these next nine races and we could still get it done.”
Hardest hit on Monday, though, was Denny Hamlin. He used the second wild-card spot to make it into the Chase and had the worst day of the 12 championship contending drivers.
A vibration forced him to pit out of sequence, which dropped him a lap down from the leaders. He could never make it back, and a flat tire later sealed his 31st-place finish.
A year after nearly ending Johnson’s run, Hamlin is probably now out of title contention and left the track without commenting.
Carl Edwards finished fourth and was followed by teammates Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch. Clint Bowyer finished seventh, and Newman, Martin and Johnson rounded out the top 10.