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Tony Stewart: maybe not back in command, but at least back in the chase

  Crew chief Darian Grubb gets a bucket of ice in victory lane, after making the cool pit stop gamble that helped Tony Stewart win Sunday's Kansas 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  By Mike Mulhern

   KANSAS CITY, Kansas

   Tony Stewart was in a flippant, devil-may-care mood after winning Sunday's Kansas 400. In fact he even 'stole' the winner's interview chair, after teasing and toying with the press, and promising to get runner-up Jeff Gordon to autograph that chair for him for his bus.
   It hasn't been like this for Stewart the past several weeks.
  After dominating the regular season, he has stumbled, week after week. No collapse, yes; but no championship performances either.
  And it's been easy to see that it's all been grating on Stewart, who has been increasingly testy.
  Crew chief Darian Grubb called this a 'must win' afternoon.
  And now it looks like Stewart is back on his game -- and just 67 points down to tour leader Mark Martin, who finally stumbled himself.
  Martin did make a comeback to seventh, on a day that should have ended worse. But then maybe that NASCAR crackdown – or whatever it was – took some of the edge off him and his team.
   And, as if to point out just who the sheriff in this neck of the woods is, NASCAR picked Martin's car to go back to the Concord R&D shop again for a thorough post-race checkout, 'preventive maintenance,' as one described it wryly.
   Grubb said he had to make the two-tire gamble if he wanted to give Stewart any chance at winning: "But we had a lot of laps on the tires…. 
    "Still, two stops before that, we had done two, and it actually worked pretty well for us -- We gained a lot of track position, and Tony was able to hang on a little better than some of the other cars that took two. 
    "We knew we had a shot at it, and we knew that track position was going to be key. So we had to do that, to get out there and race those guys that were so fast. We were hanging out with them all day, but we couldn't get in front of them to be able to outrun them.
    "So we knew we had to do something there at the end to get that track position."
    And Stewart took off like he was shot out of a gun. "We got that track position, and we had the luxury of being able to pick the inside or outside lane for the restart.
     "I'd struggled when I was stuck on the bottom on restarts, so we took a gamble and went to the top, and got enough of a lead to get down to the bottom by the time we got to one and two, and we were able to run our line.
    "We got enough of a gap right off the bat that it gave me the flexibility to run my own line -- run my own pace… and let those guys have to worry about catching us."
   And Stewart was keeping a close eye on Greg Biffle and Gordon, who battled each other pretty hard, while Stewart could cruise.
   For Grubb this was a particular relief: "We knew going into the chase it was a must-win situation  --  You're going to have to win races…because these guys (in the chase) have probably won 80 percent of the races this season. 
    "The last two weeks -- the first two weeks of the chase -- the performances we had weren't what we wanted. But we did what our team needed to do:  We came back from 36th to ninth at Dover, and we came back from 33th to 14th at Loudon, in very short amounts of time. 
    "We were able to salvage what we could out of those races. And we actually became a stronger team and fixed some problems. We know what details we're missing now to become a strong championship-contending team."
   Of course, under the old scoring system, used for some 30 years, Stewart would be atop the standings. But he continues to refuse to consider that 'what it.'
    "Now we've got six guys within 100 points of the lead after three races, so it (the chase format) obviously makes sense," Stewart says. "There's no point in even worrying about the old system and how it all works."
    Except that a number of fans don't like the chase system, and that TV ratings for the chase part of the season have been in sharp decline, meaning the chase isn't drawing good numbers, for whatever reason.
   But that's not Stewart's responsibility.
   And, as much as anything this season, the performance of Stewart's team has rested in considerable part on Grubb's shoulders, in this their first year together, Stewart's first season without Greg Zipadelli at the helm, after 10 years at Joe Gibbs'.
   "Honestly, when we started this thing in the spring, I mean there were times when I was sitting in the car and I told him what my balance was, and he told me what we were going to change, and I was like 'Wow, is that the right way to go?'  And I told him that too.
  "It's just learning each other, it's learning a new package. 
    "It was a big learning curve for me to learn a new chassis (the Hendrick designs).  Darian (a long-time Hendrick man) obviously knows what these cars like and what this chassis package likes; it's just a matter of tailoring it to what I like in the car.
     "There were times the first couple races where I didn't necessarily understand why we were doing something.  But when you go out there and it responds positively to those changes, you gain that confidence.
    "And I do -- I have the same confidence in Darian that I had in Zippy for ten years.
     "I've been really blessed, and lucky, over the last 11 years to have two really good crew chiefs, that I can talk to about anything, and that I've connected with.  It definitely helps on days like today."

   Tony Stewart in the pits, with Darian Grubb's crew doing the job (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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