LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Tony Stewart made it 2 for 2 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, pulling ahead when Clint Bowyer ran out of gas with two laps left to win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Stewart is on a roll when the season matters most, following last week’s Chase opening victory at Chicagoland Speedway with another strong performance at New Hampshire. Both of his victories this season have come in the Chase and have propelled him to the top of the points standings.
The outcome was a complete reversal of the race at New Hampshire last fall, when Stewart’s tank ran dry a lap from the checkered flag and Bowyer pounced for the victory.
"If that’s not a flip-flop from last year, I don’t know what is," Stewart said over the radio as he neared the finish line.
Four other Chase drivers finished in the top 10. Brad Keselowski was second, Jeff Gordon was fourth, Matt Kenseth was sixth and Carl Edwards finished eighth. Gordon rocketed from 11th to sixth in the standings and is in the hunt for his fifth championship.
Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, is the second driver to ever open the Chase with consecutive victories. He overtook Kevin Harvick for the points lead and made himself the car to beat after a rather pedestrian regular season. Even Stewart counted himself out him before the Chase, declaring he would call himself, "a total bumbling idiot," if he won the championship. He might win his third title — but don’t expect Smoke to call himself a favorite.
"Got eight long weeks still, man," Stewart said. "It’s way too early to start counting chickens."
It’s not too early to start counting some out. Denny Hamlin, who entered in 12th and a whopping 41 points out, finished 29th and was the worst Chase finisher. A year after he went into the finale with the points lead, Hamlin’s shot at his first championship is over. While the nine drivers behind Stewart range from seven to 29 points down, Hamlin is 66 points back and 32 out of 11th.
Other Chase driver results saw Kyle Busch finish 11th; Harvick 12th; Dale Earnhardt Jr. 17th; Jimmie Johnson 18th; Kurt Busch 22nd; and Ryan Newman 25th.
Fuel mileage was a deciding factor in the Chase opener with several contenders falling away when they ran out of fuel. Bowyer, still looking for at least one victory this season before he leaves Richard Childress Racing, seemingly had this one until the very end. He wound up 26th.
Stewart couldn’t believe his good fortune a year after the same problem derailed his shot at a victory.
"I know exactly what that feels like," Stewart said. "I know exactly how he feels right now. I saw him slowing down the back and I thought, ‘Oh, no, you’re kidding me. That’s not the way you want to win it."
Greg Biffle, the only other driver to open the Chase with two straight wins, was third. Brian Vickers was fifth.
Round 3 of the Chase is next week at Dover International Speedway.
Stewart’s win last season snapped a 32-race losing streak and helped Stewart-Haas Racing take the checkered flag for the second time this season. Newman and Stewart finished 1-2 at New Hampshire in July.
Stewart had called this season a "miserable year" before getting hot in the final two races before the Chase. He was third at Atlanta and seventh at Richmond — just a little sneak preview of what was to come in a Chase he has absolutely owned.
Stewart was cryptic about the turnaround after he got out of the No. 14 Chevrolet at New Hampshire.
"We got rid of some dead weight earlier this week, so, it’s made it a lot easier It’s been a big weight lifted off our shoulders," he said, without explanation. "Sometimes you’ve got to make adjustments in your life, and we did that, and it’s definitely helped this weekend for sure. These guys have never quit, man, these guys have never given up, and we’ve got a shot at this thing."