- Associated Press - Monday, September 19, 2011

JOLIET, Ill. — Tony Stewart took himself out of title contention before the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

A topsy-turvy season led the two-time NASCAR champion to cross his name off the list of drivers he believes are legitimate title contenders, and nothing he did on track at Chicagoland Speedway changed his mind.

That includes winning.

Stewart picked up his first win of the season Monday — a day after rain washed out the opening round of the 10-race Chase — by flawlessly conserving fuel to the finish. The victory, his 40th career win in the Cup Series, tied him with Mark Martin for 16th on the all-time wins list.

More importantly, it vaulted him from ninth in the standings to second, and he trails leader Kevin Harvick by a mere seven points.

So, Smoke, you sure you aren’t in the mix for a third NASCAR championship?

“One day doesn’t change the whole season,” he said.

Stewart, who likely benefited the most from the rain out because he was plagued with a migraine headache all day Sunday, seemed subdued in his victory celebration. He’s had, by his own admission, “a rough year,” and it was just last month when he said the No. 14 team didn’t even deserve a spot in the Chase.

But his Stewart-Haas Racing team has turned it up a notch, evidenced by three-straight top-10 finishes and, on Monday, the end of a 32-race losing streak. Round 2 of the Chase shifts to New Hampshire, where Ryan Newman led a 1-2 finish for SHR in July.

So Stewart may not like his title chances, but this recent upswing has crew chief Darian Grubb believing the team is in the mix.

“That’s Tony’s mind-set,” Grubb said. “We all work too hard to ever come to feeling that way.”

His rivals tend to agree with Grubb.

“Counting Tony Stewart out? That’s pretty funny that he counts himself out,” added Harvick.

But there are likely some drivers wondering if Chicago didn’t crush their title chances.

While Stewart was able to stretch his gas to the finish — ironic, since he ran out of gas while leading with one lap to go in last year’s Chase opener at New Hampshire — at least five Chase drivers ran their tanks dry in the closing laps.

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