The leader in the NASCAR points standings walked briskly through the garage at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Sunday afternoon, still in a rush even though the checkered flag had waved on the Subway 500 a half hour earlier. Tony Stewart, who had finished second, behind winner Jeff Gordon (box), was on his way to see his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, and the terminally tardy Stewart--he operates on "Tony time," which is Stewart-speak for "20 minutes late"--wanted to be prompt. With their team now in the driver's seat in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, the two men had plenty to discuss.
"In the big picture we're where we need to be," said Stewart before his chat with Zipadelli. "We would have loved to have won, but our eyes are on a bigger prize, so this was a good day."
With four races remaining in the season, the Chase has become a four-driver scramble. The leader is Stewart, but three others are within striking distance of his number 20 team: Jimmie Johnson (he trails Stewart by 15 points), Ryan Newman (63 points) and Greg Biffle (83 points). The field of serious contenders was dramatically thinned on Martinsville's .526-mile paper-clip-shaped oval. Chase drivers Rusty Wallace (who hit the wall and finished 19th), Carl Edwards (26th), Jeremy Mayfield (28th) and Mark Martin (34th) will now need the leaders to fold over the next month to have any shot at the championship.
"As the weeks wear on, it's going to be a smaller group of cars [that can win the title]," said Johnson, who finished third on Sunday. "We've just got to live week to week."
Johnson and Stewart had come to Martinsville tied for the points lead, and on Sunday they offered a stirring preview of what the next month of racing may look like as they ran bumper to bumper in the second and third positions, respectively, for most of the final 75 laps. With 10 to go, Stewart bumped his way past Johnson on the low line to grab second; then after the race he tossed a few verbal grenades at Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Johnson in the infield pressroom, Stewart said that Knaus was playing "seventh-grade" games when, after practice the previous day, Knaus had proudly told his team over the radio that their car was better than Stewart's. As Stewart spoke in the pressroom, Johnson stared straight ahead with the kind of look you might give if someone insulted your brother. Johnson later defended Knaus, saying the crew chief was merely "trying to pump the team up." Though Johnson and Stewart are friendly off the track, the tension between their teams on Sunday was palpable, which isn't surprising given that Stewart and Johnson have been NASCAR's two most dominant drivers over the past four months (between them taking seven of the last 17 races).
This Sunday at Atlanta Motorspeedway, Stewart and Johnson should again be in the lead pack at the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500. Stewart has finished in the top 10 in seven of his last eight starts on the 1.54-mile track, while Johnson has scored four consecutive top fives there, including a win last fall. "Stewart is a great driver; Jimmie is a great driver," said Gordon. "I wouldn't be surprised if they battle it out until the end of the season."
After the shoulder-to-shoulder show at Martinsville, neither would anyone else in the Cup garage.
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Gordon in Gear
If Steve Letarte ever wins a championship as Jeff Gordon's crew chief, he'll look back on Sunday as the day he earned the trust of his driver. On Lap 343 of the Subway 500 the 26-year-old Letarte, in just his sixth start as Gordon's crew chief, ordered his driver to stay out on the track during a caution even though all the cars in front of Gordon were pitting. That gamble proved to be the key decision of the race, as Gordon never relinquished the lead and cruised to his first win since May 1.
After Gordon failed to qualify for the Chase, his longtime crew chief, Robbie Loomis, stepped down and was replaced by the baby-faced Letarte, who had been Gordon's car chief. Since then Gordon and Letarte (who has worked in NASCAR garages since age 14) have been trying to build a rapport, and Sunday's win is a sign that the number 24 team may be on the rebound. "Just going out and getting a win isn't enough," said Gordon, after celebrating in Victory Lane with girlfriend Ingrid Vandebosch (above). "We want to see us building toward some consistency by the end of the season."
GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES
Stewart (20) led 283 laps on the way to a runner-up finish at Martinsville.
GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES