Stewart wins again; Johnson grabs points lead

Monday, November 6th 2006, 6:12 am
By: News On 6

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ Tony Stewart suddenly finds himself with an unexpected goal for the rest of 2006: Win out.

``It's a very good goal to shoot for right now, win these last two races and be able to say we've won the last four races of the Chase,'' Stewart said Sunday after making the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway his second straight victory.

``It would be a saving grace to the season,'' added Stewart, who missed out on NASCAR's 10-man, 10-race playoffs by a mere 16 points and thought the rest of his season was going to be little more than an afterthought.

But, while the tense battles of the Chase rage on without him, Stewart is driving in a world of his own _ way out in front of all the drama.

He made this one look almost too easy: ``Smoke'' led 278 of 339 laps on the 1.5-mile Texas oval, including the five extra laps because of a late caution, and often was so far ahead that he appeared to be all by himself on the track.

Most of the action was well behind him, where Jimmie Johnson quietly grabbed away the points lead from Matt Kenseth by 17 points with a second-place finish. Stewart easily raced away to his fifth win of the season and third in the eight Chase races.

``I thought we had the perfect car all day,'' Stewart said. ``It was just an unbelievable day. I've been racing for 27 years and I can count on my hands the number of times I've had a car like that.''

The race tightened up the championship, with Johnson, Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., rookie Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick separated by just 105 points with two races remaining. All of them finished among the top 12 Sunday.

``This was a wild night, but a good one for us, all in all,'' said Johnson, who came into the race trailing Kenseth by 26 points and now owns the series lead for the first time since August. ``We just have to keep working, keep running hard and scoring points.

``We've had so much fun racing for this since we got down (in the points) early. We just want to keep having fun,'' said Johnson, who has three runner-up finishes and a win in his last four starts.

Harvick finished third, followed by Kyle Busch, rookie Clint Bowyer and Earnhardt, who had a miraculous day.

Earnhardt, still feeling the effects of the flu that dogged him all week, hung in at his favorite track and kept his title hopes alive. Junior overcame a sick stomach, a bounce off the wall, seven pit stops for repairs and a penalty for speeding on pit road to move from fourth to third, 78 points behind Johnson.

``Not too bad,'' said Earnhardt, who fell from second to 33rd after hitting the wall. ``The first part of the race, I didn't feel good at all. I drank so many fluids, I had heartburn and all kind of bad stuff going on in there. Then, as the race went on, I got to feeling better.

``I'm just sorry we couldn't do any better than we did.''

Kenseth started 36th, the worst of any of the contenders, struggled with handling throughout the early part of the race and also overcame a speeding penalty. At one point, the 2003 champion thought he had a tire going down and almost pitted under green. But he stayed out and somehow finished 12th.

Hamlin was never in contention but hung on for a 10th-place finish that dropped him from third to fourth, 80 points behind the leader.

Meanwhile, Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, earned his 29th career win.

He won last month at Kansas by gambling on gas and coasted under the checkered flag. But Stewart was dominating last week at Atlanta, leading 146 of 325 laps, and even stronger Sunday.

And being out of the playoffs hasn't stopped him from enjoying himself.

As has become his post-win routine, Stewart stopped his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet at the finish line and joyfully climbed the flagstand, to the delight of the big crowd. Stewart nearly slipped a week ago on the way up at Atlanta and, this time, NASCAR flagman Rodney Wise reached out to help him up.

``We finally have caught up now,'' said Stewart, who never has won more than six races in a season. ``We all wish that we could turn back the hands of time and get on this streak three months earlier. But our stress level is a 10th of what those guys in the Chase are facing. We can go out and try to win races without the fear of losing points.''

Jeff Burton, who began the day tied with Earnhardt for fourth, just 84 points behind Kenseth, saw his championship hopes destroyed when a tire blew on lap 89, sending him hard into the wall and relegating him to a 38th-place finish and seventh place in the standings, 184 points out of first.

Kasey Kahne, who won the spring race at Texas and leads the Cup series with six victories this year, was the only driver able to even challenge Stewart on Sunday. He was right behind on a restart on lap 262 and made a couple of tries to get by the leader. But Stewart wasn't having any of it and slowly pulled away.

Late in the race, it looked like Kahne would get one more shot at Stewart when a caution came out on lap 327. But, seconds later, Kahne pulled onto pit road with an engine failure that ended any chance of a win or a championship. He fell to 10th, 290 points behind in the Chase.

Non-contender Scott Riggs was in the top 10 most of the day and restarted second on lap 331. As the leaders finished lap 332, Johnson took second and Harvick moved up close behind Riggs, trying to take third. Riggs got loose and slammed into the wall.

Kenseth spun and was tapped by Martin Truex Jr., with no major damage. Earnhardt drove through the grass to avoid the melee. That set up the overtime and a two-lap sprint to the finish that Stewart won with ease, beating Johnson to the finish line by about five car-lengths.

Two-time champion Terry Labonte ended his 29-year, 848-race driving career with a 36th-place finish after being feted Sunday before the race.