Commentary

Tony Stewart the big winner so far

Updated: October 2, 2011, 9:25 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DOVER, Del. -- Behind the back straightaway at Dover International Speedway, the "ding-ding-ding" of slot machines and shouts of "Blackjack!" constantly reverberate through the Dover Downs Hotel & Casino.

It's a fitting place for the third race of the Chase, because gambling has been the theme thus far.

Points leader Tony Stewart won at Chicagoland and New Hampshire because he was on the positive side of fuel-mileage gambles. Teammate Ryan Newman is in 11th place, 34 points out, because he was on the negative side at Chicagoland and blew a tire with five laps left at New Hampshire.

"He has had the fortunate side of luck; we have had the unfortunate side of luck," Newman said.

The Chase is turning the catchphrase of the day from "Boys, have at it" to "Better to be lucky than good." Fuel mileage and tire gambles have been as key on the track as "hit me" and "stand" are at the casino next door -- particularly fuel mileage, because half the 12 Chase drivers have gambled and lost in the first two races.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kenseth
AP Photo/Russ Hamilton Sr.Matt Kenseth tamed the Monster Mile when the Sprint Cup Series last stopped at Dover on May 15.

It's why only eight of 28 races have been won by the driver who led the most laps. It's why five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson didn't win the May race at Dover after leading a race-high 207 of 400 laps, and why Matt Kenseth won after leading only 33.

It's why Johnson -- who gambled and lost on fuel at Chicagoland -- is 10th in points, the worst he's been after two Chase races.

"This season has been different than previous seasons in that when you have a dominant car it is very easy to fall victim to someone else's strategy," Carl Edwards said. "I felt like it's interesting that the only race we've won this year we did not dominate.

"The races that we dominated we weren't able to win, and it all comes down to that last pit stop. Matt and I talked about it after he won the race here earlier this year. I called him and I was a little jealous because he won and our car was so fast and he said, 'Man, it was an easy situation for us. We were running 10th all day, so of course we'll take two tires and go see what we can get.' And it worked."

It's almost like drivers are sitting back and waiting for this opportunity, or for others to make a mistake.

"I do feel like we're at a time in this sport right now where the fastest car probably wins a lesser percentage of the races than they used to because it is harder to pass and it is more dependent on your strategy," Edwards said.

The gambles will continue as long as track position becomes more important than horsepower -- as long as drivers can hold off the competition for 35 laps on old tires, where in the past they'd be blown past.

It makes this Chase more of a crapshoot than any of the previous seven.

"If you watch guys in just the first two races, guys have put themselves behind through mistakes or miscalculations with fuel," said Edwards, who is 14 points out in fourth place.

Stewart has put himself ahead because he hasn't made a mistake. As Newman pointed out when asked about his owner's amazing turnaround, that has been more key than any "magic" people want to find.

"It is not like they are going out there and dominating the race," Newman said.

He's right. Stewart led only two laps at New Hampshire and 35 at Chicagoland. Newman led 62 laps at New Hampshire and finished 25th.

Maybe that's why Stewart is overly cautious when he is asked if he's come out of nowhere with this turnaround. He knows he easily could be back where Newman and others are if one thing had gone wrong.

Others know that, too, which is why nobody is completely out of championship contention yet, why this weekend has been strangely free from the drama and controversy that often accompany a Chase weekend.

"Obviously, they got a great jump-start on the Chase and they got themselves in good position," said Denny Hamlin of Stewart, whom he trails by 66 points. "But it's still a long ways to go, and I'm sure he'll tell you that."

Stewart did.

Over and over.

Like the "ding-ding-ding" of the slot machines.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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