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Stewart starts the Chase with first win of 2011

Ryan Newman took two tyres and headed the restart ahead of Edwards, Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kenseth and Harvick, while Kyle Busch fall to 19th after the crew had to fix problems sustained from hitting whatever it was that had fallen off Biffle's car earlier. He would spend the next passage of green flag racing having to work his way back up through the positions.

Newman kept the lead for the restart with his team mate and team owner Tony Stewart taking a high line into second as Edwards fell back to fifth. But once again, it was Johnson who improved as the laps went past and he took the lead again on lap 163 just before a fourth caution came out for Jamie McMurray's car blowing up. With only 20 laps since the last round of stops, all of the top ten cars felt comfortable going for two-tyres - while Brad Keselowski stayed out altogether and led the field to the restart on lap 168.

Johnson took over the lead in no time flat, but Keselowski's gambit proved reasonably successful and he was still third behind Tony Stewart 30 laps later when he was finally obliged to come in for fuel on lap 197, putting him a lap down in 21st while out of sync and relying on something fortuitous happening on the cautions front. A caution did indeed came on lap 204 when JJ Yeley got into the wall which sent all the leaders heading to pit road, a battle that was won by Matt Kenseth ahead of Stewart, Newman, Johnson and Kurt Busch as all went for four tyres.

Stewart muscled Kenseth out of the way at the restart which also gave Newman the chance to slip into second and Johnson to slide into third before a new caution came out on lap 211 for debris. With everyone still on the knife-edge fuel-wise to get to the end of the race, the lead cars took the opportunity to pop in for a top-up that they hoped would see them all the way home - but it was going to be an incredibly close call for all concerned, and fuel conservation was not the number one order of the afternoon.

Martin Truex Jr. bucked the trend and stayed out. Not having to worry about fuel conservation he was able to stay in the top three despite running older tyres, but when no further cautions materialised he ended up having to pit on lap 251 and was no longer in contention for the top ten.

Of those hoping to run to the chequered with no more stops, it was Tony Stewart who seemed the most confident in his ability to run strong up front, taking the lead on lap 241 after Kenseth was told by his pit crew not to fight for the lead but to watch the fuel mileage above all else. Kevin Harvick was another driver feeling confident of having enough fuel to make it home even if he started putting his foot down, and he took over second place and started closing the gap to Stewart in the sort of way we've seen several times this season from the driver of the #29 dubbed "the closer."

This time, though, Harvick didn't quite have enough time to pull it off - while Stewart had just enough left in the tank to win by nearly a second over the #29, if not to do a burnout or make it to victory lane before running dry. Considering Stewart barely made it into the Chase and at one point dismissed his even being included as it would just waste the space over someone genuinely competitive, claiming the first win of the post-season is a triumphant return to victory lane for the first time in 2011 and 32 races.

"Counting Tony Stewart out - that's pretty funny that he counts himself out," laughed Harvick, who wasn't taken in by such tactics on Smoke's part. "He's won a ton of races to start off the Chase like they did today."

And sure enough, history was repeating itself all over again this week at Chicagoland - although Stewart admitted that the rain delay had probably played a significant part in his victory, revealing: "I had a migraine all day yesterday so I am kinda glad we didn't race!" The victory set aside the frustrations of being winless in the regular season. "It's nice to finally get one of these this year and I guess if you have to wait to get the first one, it's alright to pick it here."

For once, Kevin Harvick wasn't quite up to the challenge of snatching the lead from Stewart, even though "In that last run we were one of the best cars on the track." Problems with early pace and with judging fuel conservation had held Harvick back early in the race and left him just too much to do in the end. "The car was a bit of a struggle in the middle part of the race," he said. As for fuel: "I wasn't ever comfortable but I knew I had saved a little bit under caution and a little bit at the beginning of that run and they felt comfortable with the lap times."


by Andrew Lewin



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