Stewart heating up, Kyle Busch at crossroads, more Chicago lessons
Among Tony Stewart's trusted bromides, when pressed for an opinion or an analysis in which he has no interest, is something like "if I knew that, I'd be a bookie in Vegas in a dark room with cocktail waitresses bringing us drinks" and so on and so forth.
The two-time series champion actually dabbled in handicapping Thursday during a pre-Chase media event, however, declaring that only seven drivers -- excluding himself, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth -- had a legitimate chance of winning the Sprint Cup title. Maybe he should leave prognostication to the guys in the dark rooms with expensive vodka in their glasses.
Stewart, who a few weeks ago proclaimed himself a waste of a possible Chase berth, has finished third, seventh and first (for the first time this season) in the last three weeks and looks seems extremely viable right now after winning the rain-delayed Chase for the Championship opener at Chicagoland Speedway.
Earnhardt Jr. was advancing through the field and took advantage of a spate of drivers with fuel problems to finish third. Kurt Busch finished sixth. Kenseth led 46 laps before expending his fuel, getting an illegal push from J.J. Yeley and being penalized to the position of the first car a lap down (21st). Hamlin? Nailed it -- 31st in a dreadful race. And Stewart isn't ready to move himself into the contender's list yet.
"I'm not sure one weekend can do that," he said. "But I feel better about it, obviously. We've had three good weekends in a row. Today doesn't change my mind. But the last three weeks definitely make me feel better about it.
"We've still got nine hard weeks to go. And we have some tracks that have been a struggle this year. So we've got a long way to go, but this gets us off to the right start."
Crew chief Darian Grubb, who watched Stewart run out of fuel on the last lap of what would have been a Chase-commencing win at New Hampshire last year, said he'd never discounted his team's chances. That bit of pressure release was best left to the driver, who also happens to be team owner.
"That's Tony's mindset. We all work too hard to even come to feeling that way," Grubb said. "They were definitely heat� in� the� battle comments he made. We had a bad run from what we expected to have at Michigan. We didn't feel at that point we were contenders.
"You leave there, then you go in the shop the next morning and you put your game face back on and you say we're contenders, we'll be Chase contenders."
Five things we learned at Chicago.
"I felt like we would do well in The Chase. These are good tracks for me," said Earnhardt, who has won at Chicago. "I felt we would rebound and kind of return to the form we started at the beginning of the year. Again, a lot of guys ran out of gas, but we did adjust and improve the car and got faster at the end and drove by a bunch of guys that really weren't saving."