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Happy Hour: Stewart declines to handicap current Chase duel

November 10, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com



Happy Hour: Stewart declines to handicap current Chase duel

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- There are times when race-car drivers feel they are in the zone, where no matter what happens they believe they will in the end run as fast or faster than anything and everyone else swirling around them.

Tony Stewart certainly knows the feeling.

He experienced it during the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, which he claimed in dramatic fashion by winning five of the final 10 races. That included a win at Homestead in the season finale that was necessary to clinch the third Cup championship of his career via tiebreaker over runner-up Carl Edwards.

"It's awesome. It is what every driver wants no matter what form of racing you're in," Stewart said. "When you're on top of your game, and you've got things going right, it's just the confidence you've got when you come in the pit gate at the beginning of the weekend.

Phoenix

Lineup
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2. M. Truex Jr. 138.217 26.046
3. D. Hamlin 137.578 26.167
4. K. Kahne 137.478 26.186
5. A. Almirola 137.211 26.237
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2.D. Hamlin134.98326.670
3.M. Truex Jr.134.90726.685
4.Keselowski134.89226.688
5.J. Logano134.88726.689
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2.K. Kahne135.16626.634
3.J. Logano135.00326.666
4.A. Almirola134.95826.675
5.J. Gordon134.91226.684

"It's nice. ... That's normally when you're probably in tune with your car the best of any time throughout the year, when you're in those modes. You would trade unborn children for that feeling a lot of times."

It's a feeling five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and his closest challenger in the current Chase standings, Brad Keselowski, seem to have been treading on over the last several weeks as they prepare to wage battle in this Sunday's Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

They all completed their final practice Saturday at PIR, with pole-sitter Kyle Busch leading the way with a top lap of 135.252 miles per hour, followed by Kasey Kahne (135.186 mph), Joey Logano (135.003 mph), Aric Almirola (134.958 mph) and Jeff Gordon (134.912 mph).

Keselowski was fastest early in the practice, but faded to ninth on the Happy Hour speed chart with a top lap of 134.549 mph by the end of the 50-minute session. Johnson's top lap (134.459 mph) put him close behind in 11th.

Keselowski, who will start 14th Sunday, promised to give Johnson everything he can handle. Only two other drivers -- Kyle Busch and Kahne -- ran more laps than the 50 Keselowski turned in the final practice.

"I have tremendous respect for him, but I still want to beat him with every inch of my body," Keselowski said. "I'm going to push him as hard as I can. And you know what? If he does win it -- and I don't plan on letting that happen -- but if he does win it, he's going to look back at this time period and say he never fought any harder than he had to fight me."

Johnson, who will start 24th Sunday, said he's ready to handle whatever Keselowski and race circumstances throw at him after running 43 laps in Saturday's final practice. In the spring race at PIR earlier this year, Johnson finished fourth and Keselowski fifth.

"At this point, regardless of our points situation, I came here ready to race," Johnson said. "I expect Brad to be strong here, too. He and I raced real hard in the closing laps of the spring race. I would assume that we would be right there running nose-to-tail once again when the checkered flag falls Sunday."

Stewart admitted that while this year's two-man duel might be reminiscent of his own battle with Edwards a year ago, he hasn't been able to pay that much attention to it.

"I'm still worried about getting myself as far up in the championship as I can. I'm not worried about those two guys," said Stewart, who enters Sunday's race eighth in the points and posted a top lap of 134.328 mph that ranked 15th-fastest during Saturday's Happy Hour. "They've got their own deal going on, just like we had our deal going on last year."

He also said it's hard to pick who is going to come out on top, even though Johnson has the five championships, two wins in a row and a seven-point lead on Keselowski, who is seeking his first Cup title.

"I think we proved last year, it's hard to pick. It's way too close to try to pick anybody," Stewart said. "I mean, you still have a 300-lap race here; a 500-mile race next weekend [at Homestead-Miami Speedway], and there are 41 other guys on the race track that can make or break their weekend.

"And they can do it to themselves; or their pit crews. There are so many things that can happen. It's not like trying to pick a winning team in a football, basketball or baseball game. It's not that easy."