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Tony Stewart brings much-needed swagger to NASCAR's title chase

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- After nearly four hours of racing Sunday, Tony Stewart altered this year's title Chase with a three-second sound bite.

"He better be worried,'' Stewart said of Carl Edwards, whose points lead over Stewart dwindled to eight with three races to go. "That's all I've got to say. He isn't going to have an easy three weeks.''

Stewart's bravado salvaged a title Chase featuring drivers as complimentary of one another as charm school graduates. Instead of drivers having at it, they mimicked Miss Manners. This was a Chase waiting for a personality and no one seemed willing to provide it. Call it a testament to five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, whose avoidance of controversy has helped him reach heights unparalleled in series history. Others were simply trying to follow his path.

Stewart, though, does his own thing whether it's right, wrong or somewhere in between. Stoked with passing Johnson on the final restart to win, thrilled that he'd scored his third victory in this Chase and excited because this was his best chance to claim the title since his 2005 crown, Stewart gave NASCAR fans something to discuss until the series heads to Texas this weekend.

Edwards, though, brushed off Stewart's comment.

"He's wound up,'' Edwards, who finished ninth, said. "He won the race. We'll see what happens at Texas.''

An hour later, Stewart wasn't done.

"My Adrenaline has worn off, and he [Edwards] better not sleep too long the next three weeks,'' Stewart said after his 42nd career Cup victory. "It's not disrespect to him. We've had one of those up-and-down years. I feel like our mind set these next three weeks is we've been nice all year to a lot of guys and given guys a lot of breaks. We're cashing tickets in these next three weeks.''

Adrenaline was pumping for a lot of drivers Sunday with a rough-and-tumble race at Martinsville. The final short-track race of the season gave fans the bumping and beating they crave. It also might have whittled the field of true title threats down to four with Matt Kenseth falling to 36 points behind Edwards after being involved in a few incidents late. If so, that leaves Edwards, Stewart, Kevin Harvick (21 points out of the lead) and Brad Keselowski (27 points out).

Before the Chase, Stewart said there were seven drivers who could win the title. When asked who they were, he didn't include himself. He did have Edwards, Harvick and Keselowski among those he thought could win the title.

So, was Stewart using the media as a ploy to motivate his team?

"When we talked about that, I felt like there were some things that were missing,'' Stewart said. "I think our Chase run here, obviously Dover was not what we were looking for, but every race since then, we have been a contender. The result hasn't always shown at some of these races, but we've been pretty solid in the Chase here.

"It doesn't matter what it is that's changed, the good thing is that it has and it changed at the right time when we need it.''

While he had been coming on just before the Chase, Stewart was right not to boast at the time because of his team's struggles at Dover and Martinsville earlier this year. His title hopes took a tumble at Dover with a 25th-place finish, and it looked for much of Sunday's race at Martinsville that he would repeat his string of recent lackluster finishes there and fall out of Chase contention.

Stewart knew if he could get a strong finish at Martinsville, he could put himself in position to win the title. He's been strong on the 1.5-mile tracks, thus he should be a threat at Texas and in the season finale at Homestead. While the reconfigured and repaved Phoenix track will be a wild card, Stewart was among the five drivers to do the Goodyear tire test there along with the regular open test, so he has as much time on the track as anyone.

Edwards also did that Goodyear tire test at Phoenix.

His race Sunday mirrored recent Chase performances -- he overcame mistakes or struggles and finished better than he ran.

At Dover, he fell to 28th after a pit-road speeding penalty and roared back to finish third. At Kansas, he and crew chief Bob Osborne went with what proved to be the wrong setup and struggled most of the race -- "We should have finished 15th or 20th,'' Edwards said that day -- but rallied with the help of late cautions and pit strategy to finish fifth.

Sunday, Edwards was lapped twice (but got each lap back later after cautions), had a problem with a lug nut that slowed a pit stop and was black-flagged by NASCAR for passing before the restart until the team successfully argued they were merely following orders to move to the proper position.

"That's just a gift to finish ninth and have the day we had,'' Edwards said. "We did not deserve to finish ninth.

"We were so bad, probably 200 laps to go ... I became all right with the fact we were going to finish 20th or 25th. I was already thinking about Texas, everything we were going to do. My guys stuck with it and we got very, very fortunate. Just glad we could move on.''

Stewart could relate, as he struggled early in the race and fought then-leader Denny Hamlin for a few laps to keep from getting lapped about 150 laps from the finish.

"I think credit needs to be given to his crew chief,'' Edwards said of Stewart's crew chief, Darian Grubb, for orchestrating Stewart's comeback with pit strategy. "I raced around Tony for the first 100, 150 laps. I thought his car was as slow as mine. They did a good job of turning the balance of that car around overall.''

It just added to an exciting day for fans, who saw beaten fenders, drivers come through the back of the field and even a few temper tantrums on the track.

"I think this was a great day for NASCAR,'' Dale Earnhardt Jr. said about the racing after his seventh-place finish at Martinsville. "I think this kind of racing is exciting and people really yearn to see that style of racing, not all the time obviously, but a little more often than what we have.

"Please build some more short tracks. We need some more short tracks.''

What NASCAR needs -- and got Sunday at a short-track race -- was attitude from its title contenders.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found at here.

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