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NASCAR SUNDAY: Stewart wins at Kansas to improve title chances

KANSAS CITY, Kan. - The record books show that Tony Stewart had two substandard races to start the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

His team, though, insisted on finding a positive spin.

Finding that silver lining may ultimately be what saved Stewart's title chances.

Stewart used a late pit strategy at Kansas Speedway to win his fourth race of the season Sunday and move back into title contention after falling 106 points behind Mark Martin. A mechanical failure in the Chase opener at New Hampshire, and damage from an accident at Dover had dropped Stewart to fifth in the standings, but because his team rallied in both races, the points leaders remained in sight.

Now, with his win at Kansas, Stewart's deficit was cut to 67 points.

"The last two performances we had, they weren't what we wanted, but it's what our team needed to do," crew chief Darian Grubb said. "We were able to salvage what we could out of those races, and we actually became a stronger team and fixed some problems and were working a little harder. You have to take a positive out of it every week. If you don't, you're never going to be moving forward.

"If you just take negatives, all you're going to be doing is beating yourself down."

So spirits remained high for the No. 14 team, which was practically in a must-win situation Sunday. His chances came down to strategy on the final pit stop - two tires, or four? - and the two-time series champion asked for two. Grubb immediately agreed with the strategy, and the rapid thinking gave Stewart the race lead.

He held off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon over the final 26 laps to grab the win.

"He asked me what I thought, I kind of put my vote in, and he said it was exactly what he was thinking," Stewart said. "It made me feel good that we both agreed on the same thing that quick. It was like, to both of us, it wasn't even an option. We pretty much knew what we both needed."

What he needed was a win.

Because of his finishes at New Hampshire and Dover, Stewart was in danger of allowing Martin and Jimmie Johnson to put the title out of his reach in just the third of 10 races. Grubb knew they needed to turn it up, and soon, to stay in title contention.

"We knew going into the Chase it was a must-win situation," Grubb said. "You're going to have to win races against these competitors. You have to go in with the mindset you have to win races."

Martin, the pole-sitter, finished seventh and maintained his lead in the standings. He's up 18 points over three-time defending series champion Johnson, who finished ninth after a bad pit call put him in traffic that he couldn't overcome.

"We'll have to get home and look at the car and see what is going on there," Johnson said. "So many guys took two, and we took four. There at the end, we were just trying to get some track position back and I just didn't have the speed that I had the start of the race and had lost a couple of more spots.

"At the end of the day, we finished ninth and that isn't too bad. We hate to see guys we are racing in points ahead of us."

Martin wasn't in a celebratory mood despite maintaining his lead: There were only three drivers within 100 points of him at the start of the race, now the field has seven within 103.

"Look at it however you want," Martin said. "What is there, seven more to go? I don't think we should be getting all hyped up about the tally right now, you know? We've got a lot of racing to go."

After Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s engine problem spilled oil onto the track to bring out the final caution, the leaders went to pit road debating with their crew chiefs whether to take two or four tires on what was likely going to be the final chance to gain track position.

Greg Biffle went to pit road as the leader, while Stewart was second. Biffle and his crew still didn't seem sure of what to do as he pulled into his spot, but Stewart and Grubb were certain. Stewart raced off pit road into the lead, with Kasey Kahne and Johnson in pursuit. Both also took two tires.

Biffle, the first driver to take four tires, restarted in fourth and admitted to overruling crew chief Greg Erwin, who only wanted to take two tires.

"I feel bad. Probably the wrong thing to do," said Biffle.

Stewart took off on the restart with 26 laps to go, and all the drivers on four tires quickly sliced through the field. But it was Jeff Gordon who made up the most ground. He was closing in on Stewart but simply ran out of laps to catch him and settled for second.

Gordon, who battled a poorly handling car at the start of the race, was thrilled with the final outcome - until a NASCAR official informed him he'd only gained one spot in the standings to seventh.

"That's it? Can't you read it different? Just tell me I'm fifth," he said.

He still cut his deficit from 122 points to 103.

Biffle was third, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya, Denny Hamlin, Kahne and Martin.

David Reutimann was the only non-Chase driver in the top 11 with an eighth-place finish and was followed by Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch.

Only two Chase drivers finished outside the top 11: Newman, who was penalized for speeding off pit road midway through the race, was 22nd; and Brian Vickers finished 37th after blowing his motor.