KANSAS CITY, Mo.
Tony Stewart left Kansas Speedway on Sunday carting home two mementos.
After snapping a six-race slump by outracing Jeff Gordon to the finish of the Price Chopper 400, Stewart hoisted the trophy to the delight of an estimated 100,000 fans.
Then, after a giddy Stewart learned that he was sitting in the same chair Gordon had earlier occupied, Stewart carried the chair out to his hauler.
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"I'm going to ask Jeff to autograph it," Stewart said gleefully.
Gordon could sign the chair with the greeting "Welcome to the Club." Stewart joined Gordon as the only two-time Sprint Cup winners at Kansas Speedway since the track opened in 2001.
More important, Stewart moved into fourth place in the Chase for the Championship standings, 67 points behind leader Mark Martin, who finished seventh.
"We just kind of ran our pace," said Stewart, who also won at Kansas Speedway in 2006. "When somebody starts running you down, it's easy to overdrive your car trying to maintain a gap, and you end up making it worse on yourself.
"So even though I saw him getting bigger in the mirror, I didn't want to burn the tires off of it ... it's like he could get so close and then he couldn't get any closer."
Although Stewart finished the 26-race regular season as the Sprint Cup points leader, he slipped to second when the points were readjusted for the 10-race chase. Then, he fell to fifth after finishing 14th at New Hampshire and ninth at Dover in the first two races of the chase.
Stewart, the owner-driver of newly formed Stewart-Haas Racing this season, could ill afford to fall any further in the standings.
"We knew going into the Chase it was a must-win situation," said Stewart's crew chief Darian Grubb. "You're going to have to win races against these competitors. These guys have probably won 80 percent of the races this season in Chase. You have to go in with the mind-set you have to win races.
"Those first two weeks of the Chase, the last two performances we had, they weren't what we wanted, but it's what our team needed to do. We came back from 36th to ninth at Dover, and we came back from 33rd to 14th at Loudon in very short amounts of time. 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. We know what details we're missing now to become a strong championship contending team."
Meanwhile, Gordon's second-place finish moved him from eighth to seventh in the Chase.
"That's it?" Gordon said when told his position. "Can't you read it different? Just tell me I'm fifth."
In fact, the competition in the Chase has become so intense that entering the race, only three drivers were within 106 points of Martin. Now, there are six.
"That's why they made the Chase," Gordon said. "They made the Chase to have a playoff-type system, and all year long it's been anybody that can win races and comes on strong, and now that's what we've got.
"Even though the Hendrick cars (of teammates Martin and Johnson) started off the first two races strong, and we were strong today, that doesn't mean that this thing is over. There's a lot of racing left to go. The competition is as even as I've ever seen it."
All the way down to the last lap.