Smoke signals

Jonathan Baum
Yahoo! Sports

HAMPTON, Ga. – Of course he's still in it, and of course he's not going to say otherwise.

As unlikely as it seems that Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – and to a lesser extent, Clint Bowyer – all will run into significant trouble at some point over these last four races of the '07 Chase, that possibility certainly does exist.

And that same possibility, realistically, is the only one that puts Tony Stewart back in the game as he hunts his third Cup championship.

"Until somebody comes up and says 'OK, mathematically you are out of it,' until then, we have a shot," said Stewart, who sits 249 points out of first. "All we can do is just do our job.

"Even if we win the race for the last four weeks in a row, there is still no guarantee that we could close the gap. All we can do is worry about ourselves right now. It really takes the pressure off of us. All we can do is go for broke now."

Going for broke, as Stewart says, means trying to win out. And everyone knows what can be done. Everyone saw what Stewart accomplished last year during the Chase despite not being one of its 10 qualifiers (when he won three of the final eight races). And everyone has seen Stewart go on multi-race runs during which it seems he can finish no worse than first or second.

That kind of run is what Stewart needs now. And in the abstract, he certainly is capable of it – especially considering Stewart is the defending winner of this weekend's race here at Atlanta and next weekend's at Texas.

Guys like Gordon and Johnson, they know this. Sure, their destinies currently are in their own hands, but they know Stewart sits fourth in the standings, lurking, waiting to bring fence-climbing in vogue again.

Problem is, over the past several Chase races, the Tony Stewart who threatens to dominate every single week rarely has been seen for more than fleeting moments. Rather, it's been a Stewart and a No. 20 team who often struggle in the early stages of a race and sometimes are saved (sometimes not) from going a lap down by a well-timed caution.

Sure, Stewart, crew chief Greg Zipadelli and their gang are good enough at what they do to work on the No. 20 and put it in the top 10 by the time the checkers fall. But even when they have run well from the outset and led laps, Stewart and Co. have been done in by pit-road mishaps, mechanical issues or bold moves by other championship contenders.

Some of it has been circumstance, some of it bad luck. But some of it has fallen on Stewart and Zipadelli's shoulders – especially the pit-road incidents, which seemed to be as much the 20 team's fault as that of Paul Menard and Kasey Kahne, despite Stewart's assertions otherwise.

And while clearing skies ruined great strategy at Kansas, backfiring pit strategy ultimately did Stewart in that day.

The positive spin on all this would be that Stewart is still in it despite some disappointing weekends.

The negative is that lately Stewart is showing few signs of being able to start fast enough and stay out of trouble long enough to dominate a race. Obviously Smoke believes he can win races – he always does – but when asked if his team was still on its game and capable of winning a few races down the stretch, Stewart didn't exactly make any proclamations.

"As far as the championship is concerned, it's out of our control right now," said Stewart, who qualified 30th for Sunday's race. "We'll go back to the mode we were in last year and that's just trying to win races. We can't do anything about the points. It's strictly a matter of let's go out and do the best we can each week."

It's not as if Stewart is running poorly; rather, a run of solid finishes just hasn't been enough compared to the dominance displayed by points leaders Gordon and Johnson.

All this helps explain why the frustrated Stewart has been showing up at the track more than his alter ego – laid-back, joking-around Stewart.

"I'm not where I want to be," he said. "That's the best way to say it right now. It just is what it is. That's the easiest way to describe it."

This is the Stewart who sometimes leaves the track without talking to the media – or voices his displeasure with their line of questioning, like he did Friday at Atlanta ("All the media wants to do is take any negative thing, concentrate on it and magnify it," he said). This Stewart lashes out at guys like Menard when things don't go his way. And this attitude might lead some to think Stewart is primed for a big run, as the oft-asserted belief claims that an angry Stewart is a motivated one, which means wins are on the way.

But look at Stewart's big run from two summers ago, when he collected a ton of top-fives and top-10s, including five wins in seven races. His was climbing fences across the country, endearing himself to fans like he had never done before. This was a happy Stewart, a content one – a Stewart who went on to win the championship that season.

But that's not the Stewart we see now. It's not the one who jokes with the media, even leading some members to applaud at the end of his press conferences. Instead, it's a somewhat crankier Stewart who chatted with reporters Friday. It's a Stewart who may be a bit more impatient on the track, a bit more likely to retaliate when some other driver squeezes him against the wall or in the pits.

It's a Stewart who seems more apt to find trouble, even if he's not looking for it.

And that's why, perhaps, Stewart needs to rely on other's bad luck instead of his own good fortune.

"Anything can happen to any of the teams," he said. "At this point, who knows? There is no blueprint that says, this is how you win or don't win a championship. So as long as mathematically you still have a chance, you're still in it."

Still, Stewart doesn't want to back into a championship. Though he doesn't wish it on them, he knows the leaders must encounter trouble. But again, that doesn't affect his motivation.

"We've still got four races in a row we can try to win here," he said. "That's what I try to do every week is win. That's not going to change whether we have a reality of winning the championship or not."

So if, for the first time in about six weeks, everything goes right from start to finish Sunday, Stewart could find himself in victory lane at Atlanta. Add in a rough day for Gordon, Johnson and Bowyer, and Stewart would have plenty of reason to smile.

And a smiling Stewart, well, that's the one that can roll off bunches of wins. That's the one the rest of the title contenders would have to worry about.

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