Stewart opens Chase by proving he's contender

JOLIET, Ill. – Four days before winning the first race of the 2011 Chase, Tony Stewart was asked to name the favorites to win this year's title. He listed off seven names: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman.

One name he didn't mention: his own.

If he was sandbagging, as Harvick said might be the case – "That's pretty funny that he counts himself out," Harvick said – Stewart's plan to sneak up on his competition isn't a secret anymore, not after he claimed the opening race of this year's Chase. He did so by saving just enough fuel to make it to the checkered flag and maintaining just enough speed to hold off a charging Harvick to win the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

The victory, Stewart's first of the season, vaulted him from ninth in the standings up to second – just seven points back of points leader Harvick.

"I'm not sure one weekend can [change his mindset]," said Stewart, who has won at least one race in all 13 seasons of his brilliant Cup career. "We’ve still got nine hard weeks to go."

Persistent rain postponed the start of the Chase until Monday, which was probably a good thing for Stewart, who had a migraine all day Sunday. For most of the race, it didn't look like there would be much shakeup in the Chase standings, as the bulk of the 12 drivers in the championship hunt hovered inside or around the top 10.

Only Denny Hamlin found trouble, twice having a tire go down. He'd wind up 31st, dashing his already distant championship hopes.

But as the laps wound down, it became clear that fuel would be an issue. Everyone was on the same fuel cycle, so it was just a matter of who would save enough to make it to the end.

Matt Kenseth held the lead, but, fearing he'd run out of fuel, backed off the throttle and gave up the position to Stewart with 35 laps to go. With Stewart leading, those giving Chase went into severe fuel-conservation mode. A few laps from the finish, Stewart, one of the best at saving fuel, chimed in over his radio that they would make it to the end. He did, but some didn't, including the five-time defending champ.

• Kenseth, who was running second with under 10 laps to go, ran out of gas on the last lap, got pushed around by J.J. Yeley to finish eighth. Problem is, getting assistance on the final lap is illegal, thus Kenseth was scored 21st, the first car a lap down.

• Five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson was running third when he ran out of gas entering the final lap. He limped home in 10th.

• Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon also ran out of fuel, finishing eighth, 22nd and 24th, respectively.

The beneficiaries of the gargling fuel tanks were Harvick (2nd), who stormed toward the front in full race mode while others were trying to conserve, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who after running mid-pack for much of the day rallied to finish third.

"I felt like we would do well in The Chase. These are good tracks for me," said Earnhardt, who moved up to fifth in the standings, 13 points back of Harvick. "I felt we would rebound and kind of return to the form we started at the beginning of the year.

"Again, a lot of guys ran out of gas. But we did adjust and improve the car and got faster at the end and drove by a bunch of guys that really weren't saving. So that felt pretty good how the car was running at the end."

As for Stewart, there's a reason he didn't put himself on his list of legitimate contenders. For the two-time champion, this 2011 season has been, in his words, "a miserable year."

Until September, he'd had just two top-five finishes all season and hadn't so much as sniffed a win since March, not even at Watkins Glen, a track he's owned over the last half decade.

But a third-place run at Atlanta on Sept. 6 bolstered his confidence. He followed that up with a salvage-job seventh at Richmond to provide him with a hint of momentum going into the Chase. Though it wasn't much, it was more than he'd had the seven months prior.

In staring down and eventually passing Kenseth on Monday, Stewart never thought about running out of fuel – never thought about playing it conservatively. From his standpoint, that wasn't an option. He was sitting ninth in points and hardly a threat to the so-called contenders, Johnson foremost among them. If he's going to win the championship, not only would he have to win a race but also he would have to force the competition into taking a gamble they weren't ready to cash in on.

"It wasn't win or nothing," he explained. "But we weren't going to be any more conservative than those guys [Kenseth and Johnson]. I mean, we're going to push them to make the decision to have to save fuel.

"We had nowhere to go but up. But what are we going to lose if we take a gamble and it doesn't work?"

It did, it paid off, and now Stewart, who only a week ago said he didn't deserve to make the Chase, insisting he was just taking up a spot better suited for someone else is ahead of everyone in the standings but one.