KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (AP) - With his win at California, Tony Stewart is back in contention for a third NASCAR championship.
He's sliced a decent chunk off his deficit over the last two races, and jumped five spots in the standings to fifth following Sunday's victory. Now a manageable 107 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, he figures he's got time to make a push with six races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
But he also believes he's going to need some help from Johnson and Denny Hamlin, the two most dominant drivers this season.
``When you look at the fact we've gained almost 60 points in the last two weeks, it shows that we're definitely not out of it,'' Stewart said. ``Realistically, do I feel like we're in a comfortable spot? No. Jimmie and Denny are going to have to have a bad race for us to be in striking distance. But we've still got time.''
It makes Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway a critical halfway point of the Chase.
It's not Stewart's best track: In 23 career starts, he has one victory and 11 top-10s - and none since 2007. He won the non-points All-Star race at Charlotte last year, but has three finishes of 13th or lower in the races since and was 15th in May.
``I think we've made up a lot of ground since we ran here in the spring. We'll be better, I just don't know how good we'll be,'' Stewart said.
He'll be racing the same Chevrolet he drove to victory at Atlanta in August, a car that gave him proof that the intermediate track program has picked up at Stewart-Haas Racing.
But Charlotte is Johnson's track, and everybody knows he's the master there.
A six-time Charlotte winner, Johnson completed the only perfect weekend of his career there last October. He won the pole, led every practice session and rolled to the victory.
Stewart was the last driver to win the Chase before Johnson began his four-year run in 2006, and it was the lessons Johnson learned from losing to Stewart the year before that Johnson has applied to this streak of domination. So consumed with what Stewart was doing, Johnson lost sight of his own program.
Since then, he's practiced a singular focus and doesn't worry about trying to get into other drivers' heads.
Stewart, in turn, won't waste time trying to play mind games with Johnson.
``You don't have to get in his head, we just have to go out and do our thing,'' he said. ``We're still in a situation where certain things have to happen on their own, but there are things out of our control still. By focusing on things we do have control over, we've got ourselves from 10th to fifth in points. And we've got ourselves somewhat back in striking distance.''
He can concentrate on the only thing he currently deems important - winning - to do the rest. Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb are adamant they don't regret the way the Chase opener at New Hampshire played out, when they gambled and raced for the win only to run out of gas while leading on the final lap.
They estimate the swing cost them 97 points - ones they'd certainly like to have right now.
Now, they just hope Johnson and Hamlin have something not go their way over the next six weeks. Hamlin is likely on pins and needles after Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch lost his engine last week at California.
Johnson? Not so much.
He doesn't often make mistakes, and Stewart knows that.
``I think they are good enough, when your car is good, you don't have to put yourself in so many compromising positions, and I really believe that's something Jimmie is really good at, especially in the Chase,'' Stewart said. ``I think when he won that first championship, he realized what he had done and how he did it. When you are trying to dethrone somebody, you try harder in different ways ... and you force yourself into mistakes.
``Jimmie is really good at not putting himself in position to make that mistake.''

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