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Chase decided; Stewart still man to beat

Hank Kurz Jr. Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. – Tony Stewart was in a good place before the final race to set the field for NASCAR’s Chase for the championship, his spot atop the standings secure.

And now that the nine other drivers that will contend for the title have been decided, including five from Jack Roush’s stable, Stewart still is the man to beat.

“All of the teams are running good,” Greg Biffle said during a giddy postrace interview after teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards completed Roush’s five-man entry into the 10-race playoff. “But the 20 car is still better than all of us.”

Stewart, the 2002 champion, will have his 185-point lead over Biffle cut to 5 points before next week’s race in New Hampshire, but is feeling very good about his team’s chances. Stewart is eager to finally get started in the pursuit of another title.

“I’ve been waiting for next week for quite a long time now,” he said. “I’m glad we finally get a chance to get it started and get on with what’s really important.”

A year ago, the first stop in the playoffs became essentially the last for Stewart. Taken out by a crash early in the race at Loudon, N.H., he eventually retired after running just 83 of the 400 laps, fell to 10th in the standings and didn’t contend.

This time, he goes back to New England riding a hot streak that was already in progress when he dominated at New Hampshire Speedway in July. The victory was one of five for Stewart in the last 12 races, and he’s never finished outside the top eight.

“We’re pretty happy about that,” the Joe Gibbs Racing star said. “We’re ready for next week. I don’t feel like we’re lacking anything or waiting on anything.”

The hot streak included one stretch of five victories in seven races, almost unprecedented in the age of multicar teams and big-money sponsorship. It also included a lot of good fortune, something that will need to continue as the Chase begins.

“There are 43 guys who start the race and there’s 10 of us in the Chase. You can’t control the other 33 guys. They’ve got a right to race just like everyone else,” Stewart said.

“When you’re in the top 10 at the end you’ve got to protect yourself. You’ve got to race hard, but you’ve got to protect yourself, and that’s how you get into the Chase to begin with. It was an unfortunate deal, but we always knew in the back of our minds that something like that could happen.”

With the roll he’s on, Stewart sees no reason to change his approach.

“These next 10 races are no different than the last 26 of them,” he said.

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