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Menzer: Deflect as he may, Stewart always a title threat

September 20, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

JOLIET, Ill. -- Win at Chicago puts No. 14 second in points and in the mix for third title

As the laps wound down in Monday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, Tony Stewart and Darian Grubb were not thinking back to what happened on the final lap of the first Chase for the Sprint Cup race a year earlier in New Hampshire.

But others were. How could they not?

Good start


Tony Stewart opened the 2011 Chase with his first win of the season at Chicagoland.

The situation seemed eerily similar. Stewart was leading as Monday's 267-lap race rushed toward its conclusion, but there was genuine concern that his No. 14 Chevrolet would run out of gas before he could take the checkered flag. A year earlier, he ran out of fuel on the final lap of the Chase opener at New Hampshire and never really recovered to truly challenge for what might have been his third Cup championship.

Monday at Chicagoland, Stewart didn't run out and held off a furious charge by second-place finisher Kevin Harvick at the end to win his first race of the season. It enabled him to jump from 10th in the Chase point standings to second behind only Harvick -- less than a month after Stewart stated following a race at Michigan that his team was performing so poorly it didn't belong in the 10-race Chase.

Stewart endured one more bad finish after that race -- 28th at Bristol on Aug. 27 -- but since then has ripped off finishes of third at Atlanta, seventh at Richmond and now first at Chicagoland. Yet he still keeps insisting that his No. 14 Chevy has much more work to do before he'll believe his team is a true title contender.

"I'm not sure one weekend can do that," Stewart said. "But I feel better about it, obviously. We've had three good weekends in a row. [Monday] doesn't change my mind -- but the last three weeks definitely make me feel better about it.

"We've still got nine hard weeks to go. And we have some tracks ahead that have been a struggle for us this year. So we've got a long way to go, but this gets us off to the right start."

No flashbacks

Grubb said he never thought at all about what happened last year in the Chase opener until it was mentioned to him following Monday's race.

"After the fact I did, but only when someone else brought it up," Grubb said. "We treat every race as its own race. I was concerned about running out of fuel -- but Loudon never popped into my mind.

"We were just making sure we were saving enough. Everyone was in the same boat this time. It wasn't a pit strategy call that did that, so it was a completely different circumstance [than at New Hampshire]. We had a really good race car and Tony was able to manage it."

Inside the car, Stewart said what happened in last year's Chase opener -- and all that the misjudged fuel gambit cost him then -- never crossed his mind, either.

"I was just worried about our interval, honestly," he said. "We've lost a lot more fuel-mileage deals than we've ever won.

"So you don't really have time to think about what happened a year ago. I mean, I'm listening to [Grubb over the team radio] and worrying more about the intervals."

That would be the intervals between the No. 14 as it was leading the race and the cars following most closely behind. Harvick, for instance, was closing fast in his No. 29 Chevy in the final laps and made Stewart nervous -- as did the No. 56 Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. several laps earlier.

At one point, Grubb had to implore Stewart to let Truex go by and take the lead -- knowing that Truex would have to pit for fuel and Stewart didn't need to waste his by trying to fight Truex off. Grubb had no intention of having his driver pit again, as they already had reached the point of no return where it was all or nothing.

"We didn't do any wild burnout or anything like that [after winning] and we ran out before we ever got on pit road," Grubb said. "So we were closer than I wanted us to be."

Playing possum?

They also were closer to being championship contenders than even they realized as the weekend was unfolding. Stewart struggled mightily during two Friday practices, and at the same time was battling migraine headaches that struck him early Friday and continued to bother him through the postponement of the race originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

It wasn't until the weather cleared enough for the Sprint Cup cars to race on Monday morning that Stewart finally felt the fog of his migraine lifting.

Earlier in the week, he had insisted that he had no pressure on him because no one expected him to do anything in the Chase. He was the underdog. He named seven other drivers whom he considered the favorites and acted as if he was simply happy to be part of the show, content to play a cameo role that he seemed to accept as inevitable.

Others laughed at that thought following Monday's startling revelation.

"They had some speed in them at a few different tracks earlier this year," five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. "It's just been tough for them to link together a whole race. I felt like coming here, I remember this being one of the tracks the No. 14 is strong at, and he certainly was [on Monday]."

Steve Letarte, the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., added: "If you believed what he said, then you've never raced Tony Stewart. He's a master of deflection, but he seems to always be there."

And Harvick let loose with the biggest chuckle of all.

"Counting Tony Stewart out? That's pretty funny that he counts himself out," Harvick said. "He's won a ton of races to start off the Chase like he did [Monday]. They have the notes and teammates and things to lean on at Hendrick Motorsports [with whom they have a technical alliance], and [Stewart-Haas Racing] teammate Ryan Newman and all the stuff they have to lean on. There's no way they were going to be totally out to lunch."

In the end, they weren't out to lunch at all. They were just working hard to get better until they could muscle their way to the dinner table and feast on the rest of the field at the start of the Chase.

It no doubt tasted and felt delicious, especially considering how different it was from the outcome the No. 14 team endured at the beginning of last year's Chase.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.