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Tony Stewart turns a bad day into a great day and turns the championship into mano a mano with Carl Edwards

 Tony Stewart: NASCAR championship number three? He's so close now he can taste it (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Tony Stewart was the stunner Sunday.
   In more ways than one.
   And he was clearly full of piss and vinegar in victory here, and afterwards too.

   At one point midway Stewart was about to be lapped by then-leader Denny Hamlin, and Stewart gave Hamlin fits. But Stewart did appologize to Hamlin during that encounter, in something of a twist.
   "I was reminded all weekend by Darian (Grubb, his crew chief) and my guys not to be so nice today…which might sound odd coming from me," Stewart said with a grin.
    "We've been giving guys a lot of breaks this season…and we're cashing in those tickets now."
    Because that third NASCAR championship is within his grasp and Stewart knows it.
   In fact the title chase may well be down to just two men now, Stewart versus tour leader Carl Edwards, with only three races to go.
   Tony Stewart – remember, he's the last guy to beat Jimmie Johnson for the championship, back in 2005 -- did what he had to do, take a big chunk out of  Edwards' points lead. But he certainly did it the hard way – struggling most of the four hours Sunday at Martinsville Speedway before a stunning late charge to victory…on a day when most of the top NASCAR title challengers, including Edwards himself, struggled too.
    So Stewart and Edwards head to Texas Motor Speedway this week only eight points apart – the difference of about eight finishing positions….or the difference between winning and finishing fifth.
   Not much of a gap at all.


     It was one of those wild and crazy days at Martinsville Speedway. But even by NASCAR standards it was unusually brutal. Here Joey Logano, who got the worst of it in a run-in with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And Stewart, in victory, threw down the gauntlet to Edwards, vowing Edwards wouldn't be sleeping well at all these next three weeks.
   "I don't know anyone who wouldn't enjoy being in the thick of it with just three weeks to go," Stewart said.
   "And there were some guys who had their chances taken away today.
   "It's nice to be leaving here with momentum and going to three tracks we really like."
   However for much of the beautiful fall afternoon here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge that championship momentum appeared to be Matt Kenseth's.
   But Kenseth was the day's big loser. Much of the day he ran top-five and was looking not only to grab the tour point's lead but by a hefty spread.
   Then, with only 35 laps left Kenseth got tangled up with fellow title contender Kyle Busch. Kenseth wound up needing repairs and finished a very disappointed 31st . That dropped Kenseth 36 points down to Edwards; Kenseth had started the day only 14 down. And 36 points, even with a couple of good tracks coming up, is probably too much for Kenseth now to overcome…..unless Edwards has yet another bad day.
   Edwards had a bad day here, following a bad day at Talladega. However in both races Edwards made surprising comebacks.

   What in the world happened between Kenseth and Busch? Instead of coming out of here with the tour points lead, Kenseth is all but out of the title hunt now. And it all happened with less than 20 miles to go.
    "I don't know what happened," Kenseth said. "I'd honestly have to see it on TV. 
    "I felt I left him some room on the outside; but everybody was slow and checked up.  I had a run under him, and I was almost to his door…and all of a sudden we just got together. 
     "I honestly don't know if it was my fault -- if I squeezed him -- or if he came down because there were some slow cars on the straight.
     "But I almost think he must have come down because we hit really hard.
      "And then I must have had a flat tire and didn't know it.  I went into three and couldn't steer or couldn't stop it, and wrecked all those guys. I feel bad about that.
     "It's disappointing.  I obviously did a poor job."


      Matt Kenseth's car, up on jackstands late in the race, after a run-in with Kyle Busch while battling for fifth. The crash probably cost Kenseth a shot at the championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    And Brad Keselowski's title bid took a major dent too. He's 27 points down with three to go, after getting caught up in a late crash which turned his fifth-place run into a 17th place finish.
    That incident was triggered by bump between Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., leaving Keselowski the victim.
   "That's racing on these short tracks," a very disappointed Keselowski said. "At the end we just didn't catch a break.
    "That's just this style of racing -- You can't control your own fate. The car came to us, the track came to us, the guys had a good plan. We came up a few laps short."
    Johnson at this point in the chase seems out of contention, 43 points down.
    So Stewart has a chance to bookend Johnson's title reign.
    And Stewart all weekend here has been in rare form, both good and feisty.
    No he didn't climb the fence, as was once his victory trademark, despite pleas from the crowd of some 62,000. "If they wanted someone to climb the fence, why didn't they climb the fence then?" Stewart said. Well those two dozen police guarding things, for one.
    Indeed the crowd was energetic, particularly it appeared when Johnson – this sport's king for so many years now – got passed down the stretch.
   Stewart felt it:
   "To pass Jimmie Johnson with two laps to go for the lead, you can see the people and feel the energy and it's like they're almost going to fall over on the race track.
   "It's cool….."


     It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. But out there on the track, wow, mean and brutal (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   But the action out on the track itself was mean and brutal, with crashes and paybacks coming in machinegun fashion.
   While Stewart himself said he didn't have anyone coming after him, he did say that he was tired of watching drivers crash each other with wanton abandon.
   "NASCAR is going to have make these drivers be responsible for their actions and not baby-sit them," Stewart declared.
    "Let them get their butt kicked. That's what used to happen in the old days. And you didn't have guys dumping each other and taking cheap shots like that.
    "I used to be as guilty of it and bad as anybody about taking a cheap shot at guys.  But you realize it's not about the two guys driving the cars as much as it's a bunch of guys back to the shop, and a car owner that spends a lot of money. At times we all forget about that.
    "But you let a guy get his butt kicked once or twice, he'll quit doing stupid stuff like that.
    "In fact I think they ought to set up a boxing ring at the track after the race so the drivers who have a beef with someone can take care of that….and give the fans something to watch.
   "You can watch guys go yell at each other….like Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick the other day. They yelled at each other and walked away. What does that solve?
   "Jamie McMurray (after getting crashed in Sunday's 500) waited and took his shot at the guy he was having a problem with (Brian Vickers). Not to pick on Jamie, but we need to let the guys take care of it back in the garage."
    Stewart himself has been taking it upon himself to police things he sees wrong. And he says he may be meting out more justice.


      Brian Vickers found himself in the middle of a lot of crashes....and finally Matt Kenseth just dumped him (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Most of the afternoon Stewart was badly beaten, far out of contention, nearly a lap down.
    So Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief, used the frequent cautions (18 for a whopping 108 laps) to work on the chassis.
    Then Grubb made some key pit decisions to get Stewart good track position.
   Stewart finally got back to the lead on lap 413 of the 500, but in battling hard with fellow title contender Kevin Harvick for the point, Stewart bumped doors and felt he suddenly had a tire going down. So Stewart had to pit, giving up all that hard earned track position.
   Grubb came back with another good pit call later, putting Stewart again up front, and this time Stewart held on, taking the measure of Johnson in the final laps for the dramatic victory – Stewart's third of the chase.
   "Playing the ebb and flow of strategy here is tough," Grubb conceded, looking at rivals playing at least three different strategies early on, on what became almost a maddening mess of confusion for most here.
   "It was a long day, for sure," Stewart himself admitted. "We couldn't get the car to respond to any of the changes we'd made."
    However Stewart was effusive in his praise of how Grubb handled things: "For a guy who grew up just 22 miles from here (in Floyd, Va.), Darian had a great day.
    "Darian made some great calls to get us track position.
   "The first time I gave it away when I thought I had a flat tire."
    However Stewart took Grubb's next good call right to the bank.     
   And afterwards Stewart was quite full of himself, adrenalin pumping. Stewart was even almost in Edwards' face after the race, in a good-natured but pointed sort of way, vowing to beat Edwards in this title race.
    And Edwards seemed almost taken aback by that.
    But then remember it was only August when Stewart had all but conceded the title chase, saying if he couldn't win a race he didn't deserve to be in the chase.
    "But we've been pretty solid in this chase," Stewart was able to say here Sunday evening. "Things have changed just when we needed them to."


     Nose-first into the wall, as Kyle Busch is here, isn't championship form (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

its so funny we just went

its so funny we just went throught the week listening to chevy drivers whine about ford team orders gordon saying he would do whatever it took to get chevy and his team the win only to have his own driver pullover to give tony [big mac to fat to climb the fence] steward the lead oh bye the way hes some real championship material telling his fans to shutup on national tv. i bet jimmy got team orders. hendrick is probably having all of jimmys chase cars repainted in office depot colors and aligning all the chevy engineers to move to big macs shop. GO CARL GO FORD DOIT WITHOUT MY TAX DOLLARS

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