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 a 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 him 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
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
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.
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."
Round 3 of the Chase is next week at Dover International
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
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. "Sometimes you've got
to make adjustments in your life, and we did that, and it's
definitely helped this weekend for sure. These guys have never
quit, man, these guys have never given up, and we've got a shot at
Pressed on the issue in the media center, Stewart declined to
"We're just going to leave it at that," he said.
Whatever he meant, it seemed more personal than professional.
Crew chief Darian Grubb said there were no personnel changes on the
"Maybe he's talking about me and I just don't know it yet,"
said Grubb, laughing.
With results like these? Not a chance.