Stewart has enough left in the tank for victory
LOUDON, N.H. - Five races ago, Tony Stewart said he was toast.
But now? Just call him Two-fer Tony.
As in, 2 for 2 in the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
After a ninth-place finish at Michigan left him clinging to 10th in the points, the winless Stewart climbed from his No. 14 Chevrolet and declared he was not deserving of even being in the Chase. If he somehow managed to qualify for the 12-driver field, Stewart said it would be, “wasting one of the Chase spots.’’
As harsh as he was about his Chase outlook, Stewart’s prospects brightened considerably after he departed New Hampshire Motor Speedway the toast of the town following his victory in yesterday’s Sylvania 300.
It was Stewart’s second consecutive Chase win after his triumph in last Monday’s rain-delayed opener at Chicagoland Speedway. It catapulted Stewart, who was the last driver to win the Chase in 2005 before Jimmie Johnson went on his unprecedented run of five consecutive titles, to a 7-point lead in the standings over last week’s point leader Kevin Harvick, 2,094-2,087.
The irony of it all was that Stewart, who lost to Clint Bowyer in this race a year ago when he ran out of fuel with one lap to go, captured his third career triumph at NHMS in a reversal of fortune when Bowyer ran out of gas on the backstretch of the 1.058-mile oval with two laps to go.
“Such an irony from last year, where we ran out of gas coming to the white [flag],’’ Stewart said. “You hate to see anybody lose it that way, but you’ll take a win any way you can get it right now.’’
Stewart, who finished ahead of runner-up Brad Keselowski and third-place Greg Biffle, stalked Bowyer for 49 laps after the driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet went into the lead on Lap 250.
“With two to go,’’ Stewart said, “I would’ve been happy to finish second, just like he would’ve been happy to finish second last year.’’
But Bowyer’s gamble on fuel mileage wound up costing him dearly when he dropped out of the lead with two to go.
“I know exactly what that feels like,’’ Stewart said. “I know exactly how he feels right now. I saw him slow down on the back and I thought, ‘Oh, no, you’re kiddin’ me.’ That is not the way you want to win it for sure.
“I feel bad for him. I mean, he had the better car there at the end. Our only chance was to catch him in lapped traffic. Head-to-head, he was a little better than we were. It is hard to lose them that way.’’
As he steered his way to Victory Lane, Stewart stopped his car when he spotted Bowyer waiting on pit road to offer his congratulations.
Last year, Stewart recalled how Bowyer was “one of the first guys that called and said, ‘I’m sorry about what happened,’ ’’ he said. Yesterday, Bowyer was, “one of the first guys on pit road to get to me and congratulate me,’’ Stewart said.
“He was laughing about it,’’ Stewart continued. “He was thinking about the same thing of what we’re talking about, how ironic it was that last year the roles were reversed. Shows what character he has; he’s a great guy.’’
Bowyer departed the track without commenting to the media.
“Like I say, you hate to see somebody losing races that way,’’ Stewart said. “You love winning, but you hate to see somebody lose a race that way.’’
It completed a New Hampshire sweep for Stewart’s race team, Stewart-Haas Racing, which recorded a 1-2 finish in July’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301. Ryan Newman, yesterday’s pole sitter who finished one lap down in 25th, won that race over Stewart, who finished runner-up.
“Loudon has been awful good to us this year, for sure,’’ Stewart said.
It was even better to Stewart yesterday, paying him back in spades for the gut-wrenching loss last year to Bowyer.
“We’ve had one of those seasons up to the Chase where we couldn’t do anything right,’’ Stewart said. “I mean, we couldn’t get it clicking. We couldn’t get through all the bad luck. It seems like every week something would happen and we’d have to try to dig ourselves out of a hole the rest of the day.
“I’m hoping and praying that we’re through that bad luck string now. And things are hopefully going to click the next eight weeks.’’
Stewart will head to Dover, Del., this week, where he hopes to become Three-fer Tony.
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.