Forum Spin Doctor
By David Poole
FORT WORTH, Texas - Tony Stewart said after dominating Sunday's Dickies 500 that the drivers in this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup are in a totally different position than he is.
On this day, they were certainly in a different league.
So, though, was everyone else at Texas Motor Speedway on a cloudy day that saw Stewart lead 278 of 339 laps and basically put a big-time whipping on everybody who showed up to try to beat him.
In winning for the second straight week and for the third time in six races, Stewart held off Jimmie Johnson on a green-white-checkered finish that, because Johnson had four tires to the two that Stewart changed on his final stop, at least seemed like it might be interesting.
But Stewart ran the fastest lap he ran all day on that final lap, topping 187 mph, and comfortably held on for his fifth win of the season.
"We have hit our stride," Stewart said. "We just hit it three months too late. We wish we could turn back time and get on this string earlier so we could have made the Chase. We're having a ton of fun. The stress level on us is about a tenth of what it is on those guys in the Chase."
Johnson was among several drivers who tried to catch Stewart, getting his best chance on the fresher tires at the very end of the day's activities. Johnson didn't get there, but he did finish second and that was enough to put Johnson first in the Chase with two races left before this year's champion is crowned.
Johnson, who has now finished second three times and first once in the past four races, moved 17 points ahead of Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth fought all manner of issues all day and still wound up 12th to remain in contention for what would be his second career championship. Johnson has finished in the top five in the standings in each of his first four Cup seasons, but has yet to win a title.
Stewart won his second championship a year ago, of course, but when he found himself 11th – one spot too low – at this year's Chase cutoff he was surprised and devastated not to earn a chance to defend that crown.
But not being in the Chase, however, has been in some ways liberating, he said.
"We've had to set new goals, and that has been to try to go out and to whatever we can to win," said Stewart, who gambled on fuel mileage to win at Kansas before winning the past two races in the same No. 20 Chevrolet that he now plans to take to the finale at Homestead in two weeks.
"We just have more flexibility to try things and they're clicking. It's not that we just decided to try to win races."
Johnson finished second, by just eight points, in the inaugural Chase and was second behind Stewart going into last year's finale before a bad day at Homestead dropped him to fifth. A championship is about the only thing lacking from the resume his team has assembled in its five years together.
"We were really strong all night long and stayed in the top five," Johnson said. "We never really had anything for the 20 (Stewart). But it was amazing how hard you had to drive your car lap after lap. I had to keep pushing myself so I wouldn't lose spots."
Johnson also had to drive one-handed for a few laps as he held up his window net with the other hand to keep from being ordered to pit road. Once he got that fixed on a pit stop, though, he dodged significant trouble the rest of the way.
Few others could say that, however.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had been under the weather all weekend, had to fight back to finish sixth after hitting the wall midway through the race, a rally that leaves him third in the standings 78 points back.
Kasey Kahne's Dodge was the only car that even came close to catching Stewart's during most of the day, but his engine let go late and he finished 32nd.
Jeff Burton blew a tire on Lap 88 and pounded the wall, leading to a 38th-place finish that put the driver who three weeks ago led the standings among those no longer in serious Chase contention.
Kenseth kept his hopes alive despite starting 36th, battling an ill-handling car for much of the day, drawing a pit-road speeding penalty and getting a piece of a late wreck that also knocked Scott Riggs from a probable top-five finish back to 31st.
Kevin Harvick, who got into Riggs to start that wreck and then later clashed with members of Riggs' team in a post-race altercation, finished third in the race with Kyle Busch fourth and Clint Bowyer fifth.
"Riggs was blocking all over the place," Harvick said. "I got a run on him and got in the back of him and spun him out. After the race, those guys decided they wanted to take matters in their own hands and we weren't too happy with that."