As the summer winds down, Jimmie Johnson heats up

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The boy of summer will soon meet the legend of the fall. It should be an interesting championship season.

Tony Stewart's third win of the year on Monday at Watkins Glen, N.Y., extended his Sprint Cup points lead to a bloated 260 over Jimmie Johnson, but he knows well that those points don't matter once the standings are reset in four races for the 10-event Chase for the Championship.

Wins matter then. Mark Martin, in 11th place and clinging to a playoff berth, would begin the 12-driver Chase as the leader if the current standings hold. Stewart would start second, 10 points behind and tied with three-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, who also has three wins.

"Today's 10 points were huge for us," Stewart said of the bonus points gained for Chase seeding on Monday. "That cuts the deficit down that we're going to be behind at the start of it in half. We're going to be in better shape here. We'll keep working hard. I mean, that's what we have to do."

But Stewart's proclivity in the dog days suggests he may have the top spot alone once the regular season concludes. He is, ahem, hot this time of year.

Twenty-three of the two-time series champion's 36 Sprint Cup wins have come in June, July, August and September. And though he's been strong throughout 2009, he has all three wins, seven top 5s and no finishes worse than 10th in the last nine races. He even jammed a second-place result in at Dover on May 31.

Whether it's a preternatural ability to slide a race car on a slippery track -- a skill retained from his dirt-track upbringing -- or an affinity for working inside a Dutch oven, Stewart has summer figured out.

"I like it when it gets hot and slick here. It seems like it's that way anywhere. It kind of has played into our hand for the last 10 years it seems like," he said. "This part of the year, when the temperatures are at their highest, we tend to pick up, I believe. I think we can handle the slicker conditions sometimes a little better than some of the guys around us.

"It's nice to be able to be in that position where you know when it gets hot like that, a lot of guys panic because it's going to get slick. I get excited when I know it's going to get slick."

Stewart's task now will be to fend of Johnson come the autumn. It's Mr. Hot vs. Mr. Cold. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are the undisputed kings of the Chase, their No. 48 Chevrolet crew the ultimate tournament team. Johnson has won 14 of 40 Chase races, four of the last six in 2004, when he finished eight points behind champion Kurt Busch and four of the last five in 2007, when demoralized teammate Jeff Gordon declared the season over with one race remaining. Johnson joined Cale Yarborough last season as the only driver to win three straight titles at NASCAR's highest level, and appears to be ahead of schedule from last season, when the team was dogged at times with performance issues.

"Tony has consistently out-pointed everybody over the past several weeks, and that's what you're going to have to do to win the championship," said three-time champion crew chief Ray Evernham. "In the Chase, certainly you're going to have to go after wins, and Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus I still say are the best sandbaggers in the business. I don't think that they show everything they've got until it really comes time.

"I know they've missed a little bit here and there. Certainly I don't expect a change out of Tony's camp, so I do believe they'll be strong. I expect the 48 car to be their stiffest competition."

Granted, Stewart won his second Sprint Cup title in 2005 under the Chase format, doing so despite going winless after the August race at Watkins Glen. But he's only won one Chase race when he was competing for a title. He reeled off three in 2006 in the no-pressure aftermath of failing to qualify for the Chase as the defending champion.

Maybe that's partly why Stewart hesitates to deem himself much more than a title-contender right now. Title favorite? No way.

"That's way too early to do that," he said. "There's so much that can happen still. I feel like we're in a good shot to be a contender for it. I'm not sure I feel like we're a dominant contender yet."

A few more weeks of hot weather might do it. An Indian summer wouldn't hurt, either.