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Stewart roars back in a big way

10/4/2009 - NASCAR

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- You didn't really think the man who led the standings all season was going to go down in the Chase without a fight, did you?

Not Tony Stewart. Not the man who relishes a good fight, on the track and off it.

When Stewart took the checkered flag Sunday in the Price Chopper 400, he could have said, "Hey, guys. Remember me?"

Instead, he got out of the No. 14 Chevrolet and was asked what his victory meant.

"Well, the first thing it means is I'm going to be late to Knoxville," Stewart said.

Now that's the Tony we know and love. The victory put him behind schedule. Stewart was competing in a dirt-track late-model race Sunday night at Knoxville, Iowa.

Oh, well. I'm sure his Knoxville fans will understand since he's now back in the thick of things among the Chase contenders.

Stewart moved up a spot to fourth, only 67 points behind leader Mark Martin.

"We've still got a great shot at this," Stewart said. "My team is not going to quit. I believe in my guys."

He believed in a late-race decision by crew chief Darian Grubb when Grubb decided to go with a two-tire stop that put Tony in front on the restart. The gamble paid off.

"He's like that,'' Stewart said of Grubb. "He's a little gutsy. You don't question him when he makes a call. I know it's the right thing to do, and you go from there."

It probably wouldn't have mattered if Greg Biffle's team had made the same decision. Biffle's No. 16 Ford was the class of the field, leading 113 of the 267 laps.

And he did it by opting to change only two tires early in the race. But when the money stop came, Biffle and crew chief Greg Erwin took the conservative route.

"Heck, I wish I had said [to Erwin] only one tire," Biffle said. "I wanted to take four and Greg wanted to take two. Four probably was the wrong thing to do."

No "probably" about it. That move cost Biffle a much-needed victory. But he still left the track smiling.

"It feels good," Biffle said. "It's a good day for our company [Roush Fenway Racing]. There's quite a bit of emotion for us because we really and truly have not been running up to standard this year. So this is a huge positive."

Biffle still is eighth in the standings, 114 points back. It's hard to gain ground when nine of the 12 Chase drivers finish in the top 10.

Grubb expected that kind of Chaser dominance because the previous two playoff events were all playoff drivers up front for the most part. So Grubb had a clear strategy before Sunday's race began.

"We knew we were in a must-win situation," Grubb said. "You've got to win against these guys to have any chance. We had a few bad weeks and we weren't performing the way we wanted. But we are working harder and know what details we were missing."

Like going for broke to make up ground. Stewart entered the Kansas race 106 points behind Martin, who finished seventh Sunday.

"Actually, it's a very good result based on missing it a little bit," Martin said. "This is the first time we missed it that much in a while. There have been times when I was off this much and finish 25th. But our team fought for everything we got today."

The Hendrick Motorsports duo of Martin and Jimmie Johnson still hold down the top two spots, with Johnson 18 points back after finishing ninth Sunday.

But the real question for Stewart: Can his Stewart-Haas Racing team, a satellite operation of Hendrick Motorsports that uses Hendrick engines and chassis, beat the Hendrick drivers when it gets down to the end?

That includes Jeff Gordon, who finished second Sunday.

Stewart is the only driver who has won a championship in the old system (2002) and the Chase (2005). Now he's trying to become the first team owner to win the Cup title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

"We're going to have to be on our game every week," Stewart said. "That's what it's going to take to get back on top. Everybody knows that."

Winning brings out the beast in Stewart. He was back to his usual surly and condescending self in the media center after the race, jousting with reporters and dripping with his sarcastic humor.

He took the chair from the interview room because he said his hero, Jeff Gordon, just sat in it.

When asked if he still was going to Knoxville, Stewart said, "Yes. As soon as I get through with this stimulating conversation with you guys."

But he really let it fly when asked about the playoff system. Stewart is this year's victim of the playoff for now, the man who would be sailing to his third Cup title in the old system of total points for the entire year.

"But it's not the old system," Stewart said. "Why bring it up? It's not a factor in the equation. Unless they go back to it, who cares?"

Stewart was at his best, off the track and on it. And that's when he's dangerous. When Tony gets cocky, the competition is in trouble.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.