Stewart heating up, Kyle Busch at crossroads, more Chicago lessons

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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.

1. Up is down and vice versa. The weekly adventures of Stewart and Earnhardt -- who remains winless since 2008 as Stewart won his first of the season -- attempting to defend the final two transfer spots made up much of the drama leading into the Chase for the Championship. But there also was Jeff Gordon's manic dash into the playoffs -- including a near win at Richmond, which he claimed was undone by Richard Childress Racing skullduggery. While Stewart advanced from ninth to second in the Chase and Earnhardt jumped five spots to fifth, Gordon struggled all race with a balky No. 24 Chevrolet. He finished 24th when he, too, lost a chance to salvage the day by running out of fuel. Gordon dropped eight spots in the Chase to 11th. Former points leader Kyle Busch also dropped eight spots in the standings.

"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."

2. Kyle Busch is at another crossroads. The regular-season co-wins leader has seen Chases come undone in the first week or weeks before. He was middling through much of the race Monday but had worked his way into the top 10 and in position for an acceptable finish when he was one of several cars to run dry. He finished 22nd and plummeted in the standings. Certainly his predicament is redeemable with nine races remaining. He has the talent. Each year added to his surprisingly long 11-year tenure in NASCAR's top three series reputedly brings with it the maturity that should serve as the final piece to this complicated puzzle. It appears he and Joe Gibbs Racing will learn the answer early this season.

3. Denny Hamlin needs NASCAR to sanction a stealth race. Hamlin's title route was already thorny enough as the wild card began the Chase from the 12th position. A multitude of problems --including a cut tire that required a position-devastating pit stop -- might have made it untenable. NASCAR's new points system makes his dilemma plain. At 41 points behind Harvick, Hamlin is virtually one full race worth of points off the pace. As with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch, he has a great deal of time. The question now is of fortitude and equipment.

4. Kevin Harvick has regained his footing. He stalked Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin in the final weeks of the 2010 Chase, apparently reveling in the psychological warfare that came to be such a part of the process. Eventually relegated to third place, Harvick began this season in full stride, winning three of the first 12 races. He faded soon after, however, as his team changed approach in an attempt to pile up wins and bonus points and didn't recover until winning the final race of regular season at Richmond. Harvick is apparently invigorated for the pursuit of a first Cup title again, nursing his fuel, then blasting to second place at Chicago and to the points lead heading to New Hampshire. "It's just one minute at a time literally going through the motions," he said. "If you can come out of here with a second, during the year it was all about trying to win races. Now it's about accumulating points."

5. Three on track. Though their finishes did not reflect it, Jimmie Johnson (39 laps led), Kurt Busch (64) and Kenseth (46) were impressive Monday, perhaps signaling future success on the 1.5-mile tracks that comprise half of the Chase.