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JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Tony Stewart ended his season-long funk, winning for the first time this year in the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Stewart had one of the best cars Monday at Chicagoland Speedway, where NASCAR’s title-deciding series opened a day late because of rain Sunday.
That was a gift of sorts for Stewart, who had a migraine headache throughout the rainy day. Given an extra day’s rest, the two-time champion broke a 32-race losing streak dating to California last October.
Stewart stretched his final tank of fuel to the finish – something he had failed to do in the Chase opener at New Hampshire last year. Stewart ran out of gas with a lap to go last year, a swing that cost him five spots in the standings, and he never recovered to challenge for the title.
Now it’s the competition that has to worry. Stewart jumped from ninth in the standings to second, just seven points behind runner-up Kevin Harvick.
“It’s huge,” said Stewart in Victory Lane. “We’ve had a rough year, so this is a good way to start it off.”
Round 2 of the Chase is next week at New Hampshire, where Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman dominated in July. Newman led a 1-2 finish for Stewart-Haas Racing, and Stewart believes the organization could be in for another big day.
Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, points leader Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon were among the drivers who ran out of gas on the last lap, and all plummeted in the final finishing order.
Harvick, who started the race tied with Busch for the points lead, held on for second after his crew chief told him to run wide open and not worry about fuel.
“When he turned me loose, I probably should have just listened to him, I was really gun shy,” said Harvick, who called the closing laps “nerve-racking.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. capitalized on many drivers running out of gas to finish third, his best finish since he was second at Kansas 14 weeks ago. The strong result pushed him from 10th to fifth in the standings.
Johnson wound up 10th, and dropped two spots to eighth in the standings.
“I really felt like I had done enough,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what I did so desperately wrong.”
Kenseth was pushed across the finish line by JJ. Yeley, help NASCAR deemed illegal and the punishment dropped Kenseth to 21st. He fell six spots in the standings to 10th.
“I don’t know what to do about the fuel mileage,” said Kenseth, who started on the pole. “It is really frustrating to be a race car driver and they drop the green on the last run of the day when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans, and you have to run half throttle and can’t floor it or you will run out of gas.
“It is pretty aggravating to do all the work and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments but none of it makes a difference.”
The biggest losers of the fuel fiasco, though, were Kyle Busch and Gordon.
Busch finished 22nd and fell from tied with Harvick for the points lead to ninth, 19 points back. Gordon finished 24th and dropped eight spots in the standings to 11th.
Denny Hamlin, who used the second wild-card spot to make it into the Chase, had the worst day of the 12 championship contending drivers. A vibration forced him to pit out of sequence, which dropped him a lap down from the leaders. He could never make it back, and a flat tire later sealed his 31st-place finish.
A year after nearly ending Johnson’s run, Hamlin is probably now out of title contention.
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