By Tim Tuttle
October 13, 2009

Tony Stewart rescued his Sprint Cup championship hopes with a stirring, determined and opportunistic drive in the final 55 laps at the Auto Club Speedway. Sure, he had some good luck, catching that caution after getting the wave around to get back on the lead lap, but this was classic Tony Stewart in championship mode. He took a potentially devastating situation and transformed it into the best possible result.

Stewart's Chevrolet never had the speed to beat the four cars that finished in front of him, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya and Mark Martin. He took his shot on the restart with four laps to go, at Montoya and Martin, realized it wasn't there and settled into a line that delivered him to fifth.

"It was making chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what," Stewart said. "We were pretty fortunate to get a couple of breaks there when we needed them. We just had to fight for the track position at the end."

Stewart emerged in fifth in the Chase, 84 points behind leader Johnson. It could have been 60 or 70 more and a deficit in the 150-point range would have been too many to overcome the No. 48 from Hendrick Motorsports, a group whose level of performance when it counts most rises to Lombardi's Packers.

Johnson is likely headed to his fourth straight championship, an unprecedented accomplishment in NASCAR's premiere series. He's fast and smart, wary of putting his Chevrolet into dangerous situations, always willing to fight for position on his own terms. The only reason Johnson won't win the championship for one of the other drivers in the top five being able to outrun him consistently over the next six weeks.

Stewart has some Lombardi in him, too. He's the coach and the quarterback at Stewart-Haas Racing. He's constructed a championship-style team in its first season without sacrificing any attention to his driving. In fact, Stewart may be driving better than he ever has. He's the driver that Johnson should fear in the stretch run.

Don't forget, Stewart was the regular season point leader. After 30 races, he leads the series with 15 top-fives and is tied with Gordon with 21 top-10s. Stewart has the speed to match race Johnson to the end and win the championship.

Stewart also has a propensity for winning championships, both as a driver and team owner. Granted, Martin and Montoya have championships in other series and Gordon has four in Cup, but none since 2001. Stewart was, in 2005, the last to win the Cup title before Johnson, and he also won in 2002. But none of the title contenders, Johnson included, have consistently won championships as Stewart over an extended period of time. Stewart won them in USAC, he won in IndyCar and in Cup. He's going to win another before he's done, it's only a matter of time. Why not in 2009?

Which brings us back to Sunday at California, when Stewart's chances could have been scuttled by a speeding penalty.

Stewart, after starting 20th, hadn't been inside the top 10 when he pitted under green on the 163rd of 250 laps. NASCAR caught him speeding on pit road and the drive-through put him a lap down, in 30th.

Crew chief Darian Grubb had made chassis adjustments on the pit stop and Stewart liked the way his car was handling far more than before. When the caution came out 25 laps later, they decided to stay out, take the wave-around and get back on the lead lap. Stewart had a short window, about 20 laps, for the caution to come out or he'd have been forced to make a green-flag stop.

It would have sunk him deep into the field, probably permanently a lap down.

Denny Hamlin helped Stewart with his self-described "rookie mistake"

trying to block Montoya on the start, sending his Toyota into the end of the pit-lane wall. The caution was back out and Stewart was back in business. He came in for tires and fuel and restarted 19th.

Out of sequence with the leaders, Stewart cycled into the lead during another round of green-flag stops before coming on with 16 to go. Lady Luck smiled again, caution for debris that eventually gifted Stewart with gained track position up to 11th for the restart.

Stewart gained a few more positions in the multi-car accident with six laps to go and eventually got to the checkered flag fifth.

"A lot of guys that had solid days toward the end got their cars hurt, so we will take a top-five," Stewart said. "We never got to the top-five there at the end. I'm really proud of our guys, our car got better and better."

Stewart had the breaks fall his way in California. You need some of that in a championship run. It may be all the help he needs to take Johnson down to the wire.

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