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Stewart now moving full steam ahead in the Chase

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Fontana, CA (Sports Network) -

Tony Stewart would have been satisfied with a top-10 finish Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. A top-five run would have suited him better.

Instead, Stewart picked up his first win in 19 starts at ACS, leaving him with just two tracks on the current Sprint Cup Series schedule where he has yet to win. Darlington and Las Vegas remain on his checklist.

"I'll be honest, when I woke up [Sunday] morning I thought if we had a top 10 day that was going to be good, and if we ran in the top five today that was going to be an outstanding day," Stewart said.

As temperatures rose above 90 degrees on a sunny afternoon in Southern California, 'Smoke, a nickname Stewart earned in his early racing career, scorched the field in the closing laps at the two-mile track for his second victory of the season and the 39th of his Cup career.

Stewart is back in championship contention with six races remaining in the Chase, as he jumped from 10th to fifth in the rankings. He is 107 points behind current leader and four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished third at his hometrack.

Tony Stewart has rebounded in the Chase with a fourth-place run last week at Kansas and then a win at California.
"We certainly wanted to be in victory lane, but if we can finish in the top three week-in and week-out, you're going to have a shot come Homestead and that's all we're after," Johnson said.

Stewart started the Chase with a disappointing finish at New Hampshire. He led the way until he ran out of fuel with less than two laps to go, allowing Clint Bowyer to win the opening round in the playoffs. However, Bowyer's New Hampshire-winning car failed post-race inspection, which led to hefty penalties assessed to his team, including a 150-point loss.

After finishing 21st at Dover, Stewart has rebounded in the Chase with a fourth-place run last week at Kansas and then a win at California.

"It's a situation where we were at and as many points as we were out and have been out since [New Hampshire]; we have the flexibility to just look forward and not worry about if we take a gamble and it doesn't work," he said. "We still have to be mindful of it, obviously. But the penalty for us isn't that great when you're 10th in points. You can take a chance, and if it doesn't work out, what are you losing, two spots?

"I don't care between 10th and 12th in points, it doesn't matter to me. Neither one of them are acceptable. If that's what we get, that's what we'll take, but it's worth taking the gamble to make ourselves better."

Crew chief Darian Grubb has been a vital key in Stewart's turnaround in the last two races. Prior to joining Stewart's team in 2009, he served in various roles at Hendrick Motorsports, including a temporary crew chief assignment for Johnson at the start of the 2006 season when regular crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended for rules violations at Daytona. Grubb guided Johnson to victories at Daytona and Las Vegas.

"I learned a lot of lessons back at Hendrick Motorsports, and I think I understand some of the things we're doing," Grubb said. "We're running some of the same cars and same engines. But we're putting our spin on it when it gets in our shop, and everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing has done an incredible job of making our cars as fast as we can and making incremental changes to make things better."

Stewart's bid for a third Cup championship will be a formidable task, with Johnson presently on track to claim his record-extending fifth straight title.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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