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Published: Monday, 9/26/2011

Stewart takes over lead

‘Smoke’ threatening to turn Chase into a runaway

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Tony Stewart celebrats with his crew in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday in Loudon, N.H. Tony Stewart celebrats with his crew in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday in Loudon, N.H.
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LOUDON, N.H. — Tony Stewart’s season has gone from winless to winning streak at crunch time.

Don’t ask Smoke to explain it.

While Chase drivers around him run out of gas, Stewart has the fuel to go the distance and inject the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with a dose of dominance that has him a formidable front-runner for a third title.

Stewart smoked ‘em again and made it 2 for 2 in the Chase, pulling ahead when Clint Bowyer ran out of gas with two laps left to win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday.

“You don’t see it coming,” Stewart said.

Only a few weeks ago, Stewart considered his car in the Chase a waste of a spot. Bad runs, bad luck, bad everything.

Seems like a different season.

Stewart is on a roll with eight races left, building on last week’s Chase-opening victory at Chicagoland Speedway with another strong late-race surge at New Hampshire. Both of his victories this season have come in the Chase and have propelled him to the top of the points standings.

The outcome was a complete reversal of the race at New Hampshire last fall, when Stewart’s tank ran dry a lap from the checkered flag and Bowyer pounced for the victory.

“If that’s not a flip-flop from last year, I don’t know what is,” Stewart said over the radio as he crossed the finish line.

Stewart had called this season a “miserable year” before getting hot in the final two races before the Chase. He was third at Atlanta and seventh at Richmond — just a little sneak preview of what was to come in a Chase he has absolutely owned, this one on a track he loves. In 26 career starts at Loudon, Stewart has three wins and 16 top-10s.

Stewart overtook Kevin Harvick for the points lead and made himself the car to beat after a rather pedestrian regular season. Even Stewart counted himself out before the Chase, declaring he would call himself “a total bumbling idiot” if he won the championship. He might win his third title — but don’t expect Smoke to call himself a favorite.

“Got eight long weeks still, man,” Stewart said. “It’s way too early to start counting chickens.”

How about counting wins?

Stewart, who won Cup titles in 2002 and 2005, is the second driver to ever open the Chase with consecutive victories.

“The potential’s been there all year,” he said. “You wonder when the bad luck string is going to stop. You hope [good luck] happens another eight weeks now. We hope we’re through with it and we can keep clicking off top-fives, top-10s. If we could get a couple of more wins, that would be awesome.”

Stewart led a pack that included four other Chase drivers in the top 10.

Brad Keselowski was second, Jeff Gordon was fourth, Matt Kenseth was sixth, and Carl Edwards finished eighth. Gordon rocketed from 11th to sixth in the standings and is still a legitimate contender for his fifth championship.

Gordon ran out of gas last week and was forced to conserve fuel over the waning laps at New Hampshire.

“It’s something that we need to be better at,” he said.

For at least one Chase driver, it’s time to start planning for next season.

Denny Hamlin, who entered in 12th and a whopping 41 points out, finished 29th and was the worst Chase finisher. A year after he went into the finale with the points lead, Hamlin’s shot at his first championship is over. While the nine drivers behind Stewart range from seven to 29 points behind him, Hamlin is 66 points back and 32 out of 11th.

“We’re just figuring out what we need to do to be a little bit more competitive,” Hamlin said.

Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending champion, finished 18th and is 10th in the standings.

Other Chase driver results saw Kyle Busch finish 11th; Harvick 12th; Dale Earnhardt, Jr., 17th; Kurt Busch 22nd; and pole winner Ryan Newman 25th.

Fuel mileage was a deciding factor with several contenders falling away when they ran out of fuel. Bowyer, still looking for at least one victory this season before he leaves Richard Childress Racing, thought he could stretch his gas until the very end. He wound up 26th.

Stewart couldn’t believe his good fortune a year after the same problem derailed his shot at a victory.

“I know exactly what that feels like,” Stewart said. “I know exactly how he feels right now. I saw him slowing down the back, and I thought, ‘Oh, no, you’re kidding me. That’s not the way you want to win it.”

Greg Biffle, the only other driver to open the Chase with two straight wins, was third. Brian Vickers was fifth.

Round 3 of the Chase is next week at Dover International Speedway.

Stewart’s win last season snapped a 32-race losing streak and helped Stewart-Haas Racing take the checkered flag for the second time this season. Newman and Stewart finished 1-2 at New Hampshire in July.

Stewart was cryptic about the turnaround after he got out of the No. 14 Chevrolet at New Hampshire.

“We got rid of some dead weight earlier this week, so, it’s made it a lot easier It’s been a big weight lifted off our shoulders,” he said, without explanation.



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