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‘Smoke’ feeling the heat with NASCAR Chase looming

HAMPTON, Ga. – Tony Stewart looked nice and relaxed during a sponsor appearance Friday.

Good try, Smoke.

The heat is clearly on Stewart, who’s slogged his way through a winless season and finds himself barely clinging to his perennial spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Now he heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway for what might be viewed as a last stand – Sunday’s AdvoCare 500. Stewart has won three times at the 1.54-mile oval, including last year’s race on Labor Day weekend, so this is a good chance to give himself a little breathing room.

“I can’t say I’m ecstatic where we’re at,” Stewart said. “But I don’t think anybody really is. I think everybody feels like there are things they can do better and some of those organizations are questioning what they have to do to get better. We’re one of those teams right now.”

Stewart holds a tenuous 21-point lead for the 10th position in the playoff, with hard-charging Brad Keselowski right on his heels. If the two-time champion drops to 11th, he’ll be in real trouble since the two wild cards are likely to go to drivers who’ve actually won a race.

There’s only one more event before the playoff field is set: next weekend’s short-track race at Richmond.

“We’re still 21 points to the good of where we need to be,” Stewart said. “We just need to maintain it. Obviously, if we had a win this weekend, we wouldn’t have to worry about it next week. So it would be a luxury to win the race this week, but it’s not a necessity.”

The 40-year-old Indiana native has missed the Chase only once in his career, and even then it turned out to be quite a successful season. He won three times after failing to qualify for the playoff and finished with five wins overall, matching the second-most in his career.

Stewart has had at least one victory every season since moving to NASCAR from IndyCars in 1999, but that streak appears in real jeopardy as his 3-year-old team has struggled to get up to speed.

The No. 14 Chevrolet is coming off a dismal performance at Bristol, where Stewart started 42nd and finished 28th. Keselowski was first across the line, his second victory in the last four races virtually assuring he’ll make the Chase as a wild card even if he doesn’t reach the top 10.

Stewart has no such luxury.

Not yet anyway.

“It just shows how sensitive these cars are,” he said with a shrug. “It’s the hard part of trying to figure out what you’re missing when you’re off. That’s the frustrating part, when you go week in and week out and you can’t figure out what that missing piece of the equation is. You see guys that haven’t been good in the past but all of a sudden are good. They’ve found something, so there’s proof that it’s there. It’s just our job to go out and find it.”

Some have speculated that Stewart is stretched thin, running his own race team and forced to take on even more duties since he ousted competition director Bobby Hutchens in June.

While trying to get his two cars in the Chase this year – Ryan Newman is in better shape, ranked seventh in the standings – Stewart has been hustling to add a third car in 2012.

Danica Patrick is already committed to running a partial schedule for Stewart, who hopes to find enough sponsorship to make it a full-time ride.