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Stewart’s first win of year is in Chase opener

Tony Stewart celebrates first victory of the year in Sprint Cup Geico 400. (Associated Press)
Tony Stewart celebrates first victory of the year in Sprint Cup Geico 400. (Associated Press)

JOLIET, Ill. – Tony Stewart took himself out of title contention before the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

A topsy-turvy season led the two-time NASCAR champion to cross his name off the list of drivers he believes are legitimate title contenders, and nothing he did on the track Monday at Chicagoland Speedway changed his mind.

That includes winning.

Stewart picked up his first win of the season a day after rain washed out the opening round of the 10-race Chase by flawlessly conserving fuel to the finish. The victory, his 40th career win in the Cup Series, tied him with Mark Martin for 16th on the all-time wins list.

More importantly, it vaulted him from ninth in the standings to second, and he trails leader Kevin Harvick by a mere seven points.

So, Smoke, you sure you aren’t in the mix for a third NASCAR championship?

“One day doesn’t change the whole season,” he said.

Stewart, who likely benefited the most from the rain out because he was plagued with a migraine headache all day Sunday, seemed subdued in his victory celebration. He’s had, by his own admission, “a rough year,” and it was just last month when he said the No. 14 team didn’t even deserve a spot in the Chase.

But his Stewart-Haas Racing team has turned it up a notch, evidenced by three-straight top-10 finishes and Monday’s end of a 32-race losing streak. Round 2 of the Chase shifts to New Hampshire.

While Stewart was able to stretch his gas to the finish – ironic, since he ran out while leading with one lap to go in last year’s Chase opener – at least five Chase drivers ran their tanks dry in the closing laps.

Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, 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 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third.