LOUDON, N.H. – Tony Stewart is back.
Stewart has opened the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a vicious one-two punch, winning the fuel mileage game and the Sylvania 300 Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for his second straight Chase win in as many races.
In a reverse of last season's Chase opener at New Hampshire, Stewart inherited the lead from Clint Bowyer when Bowyer ran out of fuel while leading with less than three laps remaining. Stewart keyed his radio and told his team, "Take a deep breath, I've got this," as he rolled off into the final corner of the race.
"(Crew chief Darian Grubb) told me we were two to three laps to the good (on fuel), so I got to run hard all the way to the end," Stewart said. "That was the biggest thing.
"It was definitely an awesome ending to the day. It was tough getting there for the first two-thirds of the race. We kind of hung around 10th through 12th there – not by choice or design. It was just all we could get... but the closer we got to the front, the better our car drove."
Stewart, who also won the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway last week, became the second driver to win the first two races in the Chase since the format's inception in 2004. Greg Biffle did it in 2008.
"It's certainly a hell of a momentum builder," said Biffle, who finished third Sunday. "We were able to do it a few years back, and it just means so much to your team and gives you so much confidence going into the next races. It was awesome for us, and I'm sure it's good for (Stewart's) team."
Stewart, who was winless over the 26-race "regular season," holds a seven-point lead over Kevin Harvick and an 11-point advantage of Brad Keselowski, who finished third.
Obviously, winning back-to-back races to open the Chase doesn't make Stewart a lock for the championship by any stretch. After Biffle opened that 2008 Chase with wins at New Hampshire and Dover, he posted just four Top-10 finishes over the final eight races of the season to finish a distant third in the standings.
Stewart is well aware that there's plenty of work to do be done.
"We got eight long weeks still," Stewart said in Victory Lane. "It's still way too early to be counting chickens right now."
With the race slowed only three times by the caution flag – and not at all over the final 123 laps – strategy began coming into play as early as the only full round of yellow-flag pit stops on Lap 158. From there, several teams worried about whether or not they had enough fuel to stop only once more.
Jeff Gordon ran inside the Top-5 all afternoon long, but he ran out of gas when he pitted out of the lead on Lap 230. The extra time it took the car to re-fire on pit road following Gordon's pit stop cost him valuable track position – though he was fourth under the checkered flag.
Bowyer and Denny Hamlin both ran out of gas over the final three laps, while Kasey Kahne – another of the day's dominant drivers – had to pit out of the lead on Lap 284 for fear of running out.
All the commotion put Stewart in the driver's seat, and he stalked Bowyer right up until Bowyer's No. 33 sputtered under the flagstand on Lap 298. In this race last year, it was Stewart who ran out of gas under the white flag to hand victory over to Bowyer.
"I know exactly what that feels like. I know exactly how (Bowyer) feels right now," said Stewart, who had pitted two laps earlier than Bowyer for his final fuel stop. "I saw him slow down down the (backstretch) and I thought, 'Oh no. You're kidding me.' That's not the way you want to win, but we're in the Chase now and we've got to get everything we can get.
"I feel bad for him... He had the better car at the end."
Stewart now has three career New Hampshire Motor Speedway wins, and his Stewart Haas Racing team completed the season sweep of events at the track. Ryan Newman won the event here in July.
"Ever since we've started at Stewart Haas racing, we've had fast cars here," Grubb said. "We've just had good, consistent weekends. It's just a good track for Tony and Ryan both, and it makes our job easier."