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Stewart is the perfect driver to rival Five Time

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

What's more surprising: Tony Stewart's rise from the ashes or Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign being in serious danger of coming to an end this early in the Chase?

Considering Stewart is a two-time champion and one of the best to ever wheel a stock car, it's not a total shocker that he's started the Chase two-for-two after claiming the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. So let's go with Johnson, whose frustration started to boil over in the middle of Sunday's race when he essentially told crew chief Chad Knaus to shut up and let him drive.

During his half-decade reign, Five Time has been down before only to come back and win. But never has he dipped lower than ninth in the Chase standings. After finishing 18th on Sunday, Johnson sits 10th – 29 points back of Stewart, the new points leader.

"Obviously we need eight great [races] from here," Johnson said. "We can't run 10th anymore; we need a bunch of Ws."

To say Johnson is out of it would be naïve. But really what the deficit shows is just how remarkable an achievement winning five titles in a row has been.

One of the criticisms of the Chase format is that it doesn't reward consistency. That's wrong. It does, maybe more so than the old season-long championship format, because in the Chase there's no room for a slump. To win it, you have to be consistent for 10 straight races. You're allowed a mulligan, sure, but if you take one you have to make up for it by being exceptional every other week.

Johnson has stood up to this pressure for five straight years, taking haymakers from Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin. He's yet to go down even once.

• Five races into the 2006 Chase, Johnson sat eighth – 156 points back. In the back half of the Chase, he finished second, first, second, second, second and ninth to win going away.

• When he found himself trailing Gordon by 68 points halfway through the 2007 Chase, Johnson responded by winning four straight races.

• In 2008, Carl Edwards won three of the final four races of the Chase and still lost. How? Because Johnson posted a 5.7 average in those 10 races.

• In 2009, Johnson's average finish was 6.8 and that included a wreck-induced 38th-place finish at Texas.

• After posting a 25th-place finish in race No. 1 of last year's Chase, Johnson whipped off nine straight top-10 finishes, including seven in the top five.

It's one thing to be consistent, another to be superbly so and even another to be superbly so when it matters most.

Critics say that the Chase format is tailor-made for Johnson, as if the outcomes have been predetermined. Of course they aren't, it only seems that way because Johnson's dominance has been so consistent and seemingly so effortless.

It's going to take a Chase when he isn't superb, and maybe a few years of drivers swapping championships to truly understand how difficult winning five in a row really is.

It's not by chance that Stewart is the last driver to have won a championship before Johnson and that it's he who sits atop the standings now.

His win Sunday was similar to the one he picked up last Monday at Chicagoland. Again it came down to fuel. Clint Bowyer held the lead with just a few laps to go when he ran out of gas. With plenty left in his tank, Stewart cruised by Bowyer en route to his second straight win, one that should erase any doubt even in his own head, that he's in the Chase to win it.

"It's huge," Stewart said. "When you talk about momentum, that racecar doesn't know anything about momentum. It knows what you put in it, it knows how we drive it. It doesn't know stats, it doesn't know anything other than just what's put in it.

"Momentum deals with people. It's not just these first two races of the Chase, it was the two weeks leading before it, too. We haven't finished outside the top seven now in the last four weeks. That's huge for us. It's huge for our guys."

And that kind consistency is huge when it comes to winning a title.

The Chase format dictates that you put it together for 10 straight races. There's no relying on luck to do that. You just have to be really good.

We've always known Stewart is good, even three weeks ago when things were so bad he said he was just taking up a Chase spot. That's why it's more of a surprise Johnson isn't near the top of the standings than that Stewart is.

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