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Stewart celebrates, but the real action at Atlanta is behind him

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HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) _ Tony Stewart knows he won't be celebrating at the end of the season, so he's letting it all hang out now.

After stealing another win in a Chase that doesn't include him, Stewart scrambled out of his No. 20 car, scaled the fence in front of Atlanta Motor Speedway's mammoth grandstand, and snatched the checkered flag for himself.

``We're strictly just trying to win races,'' said Stewart, who did just that in Sunday's Bass Pro Shops 500 _ in second victory in seven races during NASCAR's Chase for Nextel Cup championship.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, it doesn't matter how many races Stewart wins the rest of the way. The two-time champion is playing a supporting role, having failed to qualify for the 10-man playoff.

So, while Stewart crossed the line first, the most significant developments went on behind the winner. This was racing's version of moving day, when a tightly bunched race for the Nextel Cup title became easier to sort out.

Matt Kenseth finished fourth and retained the top spot in the standings with three races to go. Jimmie Johnson is the hottest of the challengers, finishing second to Stewart and moving into the No. 2 spot, only 26 points behind the leader.

``I'm certainly optimistic,'' said Johnson, who's surged into contention with runner-up finishes at Charlotte and Atlanta, sandwiched around a win at Martinsville. ``It's closer than I've ever been, numbers-wise, to the lead in the Chase. I'm very excited about that.''

Also in contention: rookie Denny Hamlin, who jumped to third in the points (65 behind) though he actually lost ground to Kenseth, along with fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and one-time leader Jeff Burton _ both 84 points back in a tie for fourth.

Earnhardt, who overcame a flat tire that cost him a lap, may have gotten snookered late in the race when he was caught on the track while all the other leaders pitted for new tires. Stewart powered back in front on the final restart with 10 laps remaining and pulled away to win by more than a second.

``I obviously wasn't as good as Tony or Jimmie and didn't think we would be able to hold them off,'' said Earnhardt, who led 95 of the 325 laps before settling for third, edging Kenseth by inches. ``I just wanted to finish fourth or better.''

Kenseth had no complaints, either.

``That's how we need to run to have a shot at (the championship),'' he said. ``All the rest of those guys are going to be running in the top five and we need to be there in order to have a shot at it.''

Kevin Harvick, who was second in the points when he got to Atlanta, learned that lesson the hard way. He battled handling problems all day, finished four laps behind in 31st place and lost four spots in the standings, now facing a rather daunting 121-point deficit.

Everyone else looks like a pretender.

Mark Martin got caught up in a late wreck, which likely ruined any hope of the perennial runner-up claiming his first title in what could be his last full-time season. Jeff Gordon got rammed from behind by Jamie McMurray, who couldn't see because of a blinding sunset in a race that finished under the lights. Kyle Busch's faint hopes surely ended with a 27th-place showing.

But the biggest loser of all was Kasey Kahne, who wasted one of the strongest cars on the track with a boneheaded move. Inexplicably ignoring the advice of his spotter, he got tangled up with David Stremme and took them both out of the race.

``Just a brain fade,'' said Kahne, who tumbled 210 points behind Kenseth in ninth place. ``I'll take total blame for it. It was all my fault.''

While the pressure seemed to get to Kahne, Stewart doesn't have that sort of burden, which probably explains why he's running so well during the Chase. He coasted to victory at Kansas City by gambling on fuel, and he was able to make some aggressive setups on the 1 1/2-mile Atlanta trioval with only one thing in mind.

Winning.

``The nice thing is you don't have to worry about points,'' Stewart said. ``It just takes the pressure off of us and lets us go back to doing what we do best, and that's just going out and trying to win races.''

He resisted the chance to speculate on how the standings would look if he had slipped into the Chase, or where he might be if NASCAR had not decided three years ago to limit the championship race to the top 10 drivers with 10 events to go.

``We aren't in the Chase, so it doesn't matter, does it?'' Stewart said. ``There's a lot of pressure on those guys. Sometimes it gets you off your game a little bit. Sometimes, it forces you to be a little more conservative and sometimes, because of the pressure, you make mistakes. Those guys are in a totally different situation than we are. It's easier for us to just go out and try to win races.''

Johnson got off to a slow start in the Chase and was eighth, 156 points behind Burton only four weeks ago. Now, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has a legitimate shot at the one honor that escaped him during his first four seasons in NASCAR's top series.

``We got off to a rough start, but we had speed in the car and now we're getting the results,'' Johnson said. ``I feel great about it.''

Stewart led 145 laps in his fourth win of the season and celebrated in style, actually climbing into the flagstand above the start-finish line _ a somewhat perilous ascent that showed off his less-portly frame.

``Didn't you see how short a time it took me to get up there?'' he said proudly. ``I thought I got up there pretty dang quick for a semi-fat kid. I am not as fat as I used to be.''
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