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Stewart counts himself out — and wins
For Tony Stewart, the gloves are off.
Stewart did not have enough fuel for his car to reach Victory Lane, but he did have enough fuel to win the first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup on Monday.
What Stewart hasn’t run out of is his trademark attitude. His lack of patience has been well-documented, particularly the past few weeks. Before he could sit down in the media center for his postrace interviews Monday at Chicagoland Speedway, before he was asked the first question, Smoke belted the first barb.
"This room is still full of bigger idiots than me," he told the reporters in the room.
Then Stewart put his owner’s hat back on and morphed into a civilized human being for the remainder of his media availability.
He seemed somewhat satisfied that he vaulted from ninth in the points standings to second, the highest the No. 14 Chevrolet has been in the standings since Las Vegas, the third race of the season. He seemed pleased that his 32-race winless drought ended at Chicagoland Speedway with his 40th career win. And he seemed encouraged by how his team stepped up its performance for the Chase.
But it was clear that Stewart’s negative attitude has already taken its toll on the team, as well.
Stewart's comments the past few weeks — valid or not — such as "we don’t belong in the Chase," which he uttered after the race at Michigan International Speedway, certainly have affected crew chief Darian Grubb.
Told of Stewart’s comments Thursday that seven teams had a shot at the championship but that his team was not one of them, Grubb replied, “That’s Tony’s mind-set, not ours. We all work too hard to even come to feeling that way.”
With performances like Monday's, it's clear the No. 14 crew can persevere despite the attitude of the driver.
'Even after those comments, (it) took a little bit to rally the troops and keep the morale up," Grubb acknowledged. "That was the feeling after the first two weeks. Then we had these two solid runs leading into this week and this win, should keep everybody pumped up."
While Grubb momentarily became Stewart’s apologist — he called the driver’s remarks "heat of the battle" comments — it's his responsibility to maintain his team’s morale. The No. 14 team has been on a roller coaster since March, when it plummeted from first in the points after Las Vegas to 12th after Talladega, five races later. But with a third-place finish in Atlanta and a seventh at Richmond, Stewart climbed back to ninth in points.
Though Grubb deserves battle pay for wearing the crew chief cap, he understands that part of his job description includes keeping Stewart "pumped up" and letting him know "what we’re doing to get better." Certainly, that would assuage some of the driver's concerns moving forward.
"That's the biggest thing is making sure he knows what we're working on to try to get better. Because where we are is not the best," Grubb said. "We know we have some areas to improve on.
"If I give him feedback of what we're working on in the engineering group and things to get better, it makes him a little more confident (in the team). . . . And we go to the racetrack and we prove it to him. Once we do that, we get better."
Perhaps, though, it's time for competitors to call Stewart's bluff. Although Stewart has picked up his performance on the racetrack, his mind-set hadn’t changed, not totally.
"I’m not sure one weekend can do that," Stewart said. "But I feel better about it, obviously, we’ve had three good weekends in a row. Today doesn’t change my mind."
There’s no doubt Stewart is immensely talented. At 40, he has accomplished milestones most racers can only dream of: an IndyCar title, two Cup championships — under the old and new points format — and 40 career wins to tie Mark Martin for 16th on NASCAR’s all-time win list.
So it’s not surprising that even friend Kevin Harvick found Stewart's self-deprecating comments amusing.
"Counting Tony Stewart out, that's pretty funny that he counts himself out," Harvick said. "He's won a ton of races to start off the Chase like they did today, have the notes and teammates and things to lean on at Hendrick Motorsports and (with teammate) Ryan (Newman) . . . there's no way they're going to be totally out to lunch. So I think that's yet to be seen. So he ran strong all day and drove from the back to the front and led the race and won the race.
“So he shouldn't count himself out. That's pretty funny.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back in the hunt.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver's third-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway is his best performance since finishing second at Kansas Speedway in June, 14 races ago.
Regardless of a summer slump in which Junior posted two top-10s, both at Pocono International Raceway, he maintained a top-10 presence in the points standings. His third-place finish on Monday elevated Junior to fifth in points.
"We worked real hard all weekend trying to be smart," Earnhardt Jr. said. "The car was a bit of a struggle in the middle part of the race but in that last run we were one of the best cars on the track.
"My guys had great pit stops and worked really hard trying to get better so I really have to thank those guys for what they got us today and we had a good car and we were just real smart all weekend and did a good job and I am real happy with the team."
Earnhardt also praised the engine department and the cooperation between the crew in the 88/48 (Jimmie Johnson) shop for providing the team with competitive cars.
Gordon had trouble with a right front tire on Lap 111 and pitted a few laps before the green-flag stops began. Gordon fell off the lead lap on Lap 124 and was scored 25th. Gordon earned a beneficiary pass on Lap 168 and climbed into the top 15 in the closing laps before he ran out of gas and finished 24th. Gordon lost eight positions in the standings. He now sits 11th, 25 points behind Harvick.
"We were just off," Gordon said. "We didn’t qualify good. That got us behind right there. It was just one of those days. . . . We had a right front tear apart. We actually got the car halfway decent there at the end. Then it came down to saving fuel, and we obviously didn’t save enough fuel.”
Hamlin struggled early after starting 31st. By Lap 85, Hamlin was up in the top 20 but dropped to 37th after he was forced to pit with a loose tire. Mired back in traffic, the pressure began to mount.
"We’re about five seconds from banging our head against the wall," Hamlin said.
Although he climbed back to 24th by Lap 222, Hamlin’s luck did not improve. He cut a left front tire, was forced to pit and dropped to 33rd. In the final laps, Hamlin gained ground and was scored 31st, but he remains 12th in the standings, 41 points out of first.
6: Pit stops by the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge, the fewest Monday. Brad Keselowski finished fifth with the call by Paul Wolfe to stay on the track when the other cars pitted on Lap 164.
7th: Clint Bowyer’s best finish since Infineon Raceway in June.
13: Consecutive winning Sprint Cup seasons for Stewart.
64: The most laps led in the Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway, by Kurt Busch.
Harvick had some close calls with Kurt Busch on pit road Monday and became irate with the No. 22 Dodge on the track. During a lighthearted moment later in the race, Harvick asked spotter Billy O’Dea, "Why don’t you ask that 22 if he wants to push us?”
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