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Sunday, September 25, 2011
Updated: January 13, 6:46 PM ET
Tony Stewart roars to Chase lead

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

LOUDON, N.H. -- OK, everybody sit down, shut up and hold on -- for another rocket ride with Tony Stewart to the top of NASCAR and, as usual on such rolls, into uncharted territory of cantankerous enigma.

Stewart threw somebody under the bus -- it just wasn't clear whom -- live on ESPN on Sunday, after winning his second straight Chase race and taking the points lead in the playoffs.

"We got rid of some dead weight earlier this week, so it made it a lot easier," he said in Victory Lane after pressuring Clint Bowyer in the waning stages of the Sylvania 300 until Bowyer ran out of gas with two laps remaining.

"It's been a big weight lifted off our shoulders," Stewart continued. "Sometimes you gotta make adjustments in your life. And we did that. And it's definitely helped this week for sure."

Pressed by ESPN's Vince Welch to elaborate, Stewart refused. So, my TV-side colleague Marty Smith and I agreed that the first one of us to get a question in during the lengthier postrace interview would meet that freight train head-on.

Tony Stewart
Meet your new Chase leader: Back-to-back race winner Tony Stewart.

I got a hand up first, and told Stewart that the track and the Internet were abuzz with curiosity about what he meant.

"We're just going to leave it at that," he said.

No we weren't. I tried to ask if this was a personal message, one-on-one, to somebody out there, but he stopped me in mid-sentence.

"You can't ask anything," he said. "It is what it is. That's all it was, is what you said. That's where we'll leave it."

Moments earlier I'd asked his crew chief, Darian Grubb, if he knew what Stewart was talking about. Grubb said he didn't.

So I'd asked Grubb if there had been any personnel changes on the team in the past few days.

"Not that I know of," Grubb said, with a sort of glib lilt in this voice.

So I asked Stewart if there'd been any personnel changes.

"No, there hasn't," he said.

So now we can only speculate, but knowing Stewart's long history of, shall we say, active bachelorhood, could the Victory Lane shots possibly have been aimed at an off-the-track relationship gone sour?

But that's Stewart when he's winning, rolling: saying what he pleases, to whomever he pleases, even on live national television. No telling who would be next, should Stewart win the third Chase race next week at Dover.

But we won't know until then, so back to how he went 2-0 in the Chase after having a pretty miserable regular season.

This one was a fuel-mileage race that shouldn't have been. Jeff Gordon had the field covered until his crew miscalculated on his final stop, under green, with 70 laps left, and he ran out of gas coming onto the pit road. Then the crew failed to get his fuel cell completely full.

Had Gordon's stop gone normally he likely would have made the race a yawner. He'd led the most laps, 78, and kept comfortable margins of 2 seconds-plus over second place. As it was, he finished fourth, but did climb to fifth in the standings.

After Gordon's bad stop, Stewart clearly was in the best shape on fuel mileage. Although Bowyer led, Grubb knew he would likely run out of fuel, and that "we were two laps to the good," Grubb said.

Bowyer was among the first to greet Stewart as he headed to Victory Lane, laughing about the irony. Last year in this race, it was Stewart who ran out of gas at the white flag, leaving Bowyer to win.

I think it was about the time at Michigan when Tony said we weren't Chase contenders even if we made the Chase. I think that sparked a little something in everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing, and they all started taking a little bit of extra load and working harder and getting faster.

-- Crew chief Darian Grubb

Sunday, Stewart admitted, Bowyer "had the better car at the end." Other than Bowyer running out, "our only chance was to catch him in lapped traffic. Head-to-head, he was a little better than we were."

Bottom line, two Chase races, two wins for Stewart and Grubb. And you'll pardon them if they're a little light-headed, because this hot streak has blindsided even the two of them.

As recently as August, Grubb had "no idea" when or if the team would get out of the doldrums, he said.

They were winless going into the Chase, and barely made it.

"We had a really good start to the year; we had really good cars, fast cars, chances to win, strategies to win," Grubb said, "and just got beat over and over and over. So it really beat us down.

"Middle of the year we just couldn't hit on anything that was making anything better," Grubb continued. "And then those last few weeks we started getting better. I think it was about the time at Michigan [in August, five races ago] when Tony said we weren't Chase contenders even if we made the Chase. I think that sparked a little something in everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing, and they all started taking a little bit of extra load and working harder and getting faster."

"It happened in a week," Stewart said of the turnaround. "We went from five laps down at Bristol to running third at Atlanta the next week. No, you don't see it coming."

But here they are, on a rocket ride, atop the Chase standings by seven points over Kevin Harvick, who struggled to a 12th-place finish, complaining to his crew that teammate Bowyer was getting so much better fuel mileage.

If Stewart has all the momentum on the radar, Brad Keselowski is coming right behind him, under the radar. Keselowski and his Penske crew adjusted their way into a second-place finish Sunday, and Keselowski moved to third in the standings, 11 points behind Stewart.

The Gordon fuel foul-up was part of a general semi-meltdown for Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson finished 18th after bickering with crew chief Chad Knaus on the radio, and then getting sideways and falling back after contact with Kyle Busch. Johnson is now 10th in the playoff standings, and his path toward a sixth straight championship is looking rocky.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who'd finished third at Chicagoland last week and climbed to fifth in the standings, finished 17th on Sunday after a flat tire late ruined his day, and fell to eighth in the standings.

Just to top off his day, Stewart got an opening for sarcasm toward the people who are usually the collateral damage on his hot streaks: local media.

Stewart had simply steered around Bowyer to take the lead after Bowyer ran out of gas. But one poor uninitiated local reporter asked Stewart about his technique for the winning pass, and "When did you decide that was the point to make your move?"

Stewart rolled his eyes, made faces and prepared to knock this one out of the park.

"I mean, I planned it for 280 some odd laps," he deadpanned. "I knew he was going to run out of fuel right at that moment. Versus just driving through him and running over him, seems like it might be an easier option to turn left and run around him."

The regular NASCAR press corps was by this point trying to suppress laughter, but feeling sorry for the youngster.

"That was the strategy all along," Stewart said. "Just had to wait for the opportunity."

Yes indeed, Tony Stewart is back on top and rolling. Hang on.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.