Stewart takes race, Chase lead

LOUDON, N.H. — Tony Stewart can turn a phrase sometimes as good as a wheel.

"The cars don't know anything about momentum, but the people do," Stewart said after winning Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

He certainly would know.

Stewart managed to get into the 12-driver field for this season's Chase for the Sprint Cup despite being one of only two drivers without a victory.

He rectified that problem last week with his first win of the season in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

On Sunday he doubled down.

Stewart inherited the lead with two of 300 laps remaining when race leader Clint Bowyer ran out of fuel and held off Brad Keselowski for his second consecutive win to open NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

The only other driver to win the first two races of the Chase since the format's inception in 2004 was Greg Biffle in 2008, who opened the Chase with wins at New Hampshire and Dover, Del., that season.

"As much as we want to sit here and beat our chest and be proud of what we've done and we are proud of what we've done these first two weeks we got eight hard weeks to go here," Stewart said after the race.

"This is the perfect scenario to go into these last eight weeks, for sure."

Not only did Stewart inherit the win, he also inherited the Sprint Cup Series points lead with his victory. With eight races left to decide the champion, he holds a seven-point lead over Kevin Harvick.

Suddenly, the opportunity for Stewart to become a three-time series champion doesn't appear so far-fetched as it did earlier this season.

"We had one of those seasons up to the Chase where we couldn't do anything right. I mean we couldn't get it clicking," Stewart said.

"We couldn't get through all the bad luck. It seemed like every week something would happen and we'd have to try to dig ourselves out of a hole the rest of the day.

"I'm hoping and praying that we're through that bad luck string now and things are going to click the next eight weeks."

Several of Stewart's fellow Chase contenders hit the bad luck he avoided.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. twice had flat right-front tires and Jeff Gordon who led a race-high 78 laps ran out of fuel on pit road while making a green-flag pit stop.

In addition, Kyle Busch ran through his pit stall on a stop; Ryan Newman — who led the first 62 laps of the race — had trouble during his last pit stop with a lug nut; and Denny Hamlin ran out of gas with three laps remaining.

There appeared plenty of bad luck to go around.

It was Bowyer who seemed in control, taking the lead on Lap 250 after passing Kasey Kahne.

With two laps left, however, Bowyer suddenly slowed on the track out of gas.

Oddly enough, Bowyer won this race a year ago when Stewart, who was leading the race, ran out of fuel before the finish.

"I thought he was going to be close," Stewart's crew chief, Darian Grubb, said of Bowyer. "He pitted two laps before we did (so) we knew he was going to be at least closer than we were.

"If he was going to be pushing it that hard and still think he could make it, we knew we were going to be right there with him, at least."

Greg Biffle finished third, Gordon was fourth and Brian Vickers was fifth.

Keselowski's runner-up finish vaulted him to second in the series standings and with as good a chance as anyone to win a championship.

"We weren't the fastest car. I'd be lying if I tried to tell you we were but we made good adjustments to our car," he said. "We got it to where it was a Top 10 car and drove up to fourth or fifth with about 100 (laps) to go."

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