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NASCAR Sprint Cup: Where There Is Smoke There Is Fire at Chicagoland Speedway

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent ISeptember 19, 2011

JOLIET, IL - SEPTEMBER 19:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 19, 2011 in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Geoff Burke/Getty Images

A rainy day and a migraine headache had Tony Stewart down on the day the GEICO 400 was suppose to be run, but a day later he was in fine form as he charged to the lead and took the win in Chicago.

Stewart was winless heading into the Chase and he wondered out loud whether or not he belonged there and if he was just taking up space that someone else deserved.

The owner/driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet had one of the fastest cars and his crew chief, Darian Grubb, called flawless pit stops.

The race boiled down to one of strategy with fuel management. Stewart was in the lead as other drivers were being told they had to conserve or that they were short more than a lap.

The eventual race winner held off Kevin Harvick by using his clutch to conserve fuel, yet maintain track position.

Denny Hamlin, driver of the Fed Ex No. 11 had the worst performance of any driver from repeated mistakes by his crew, including a possible loose wheel after a pit stop.

The final laps were pretty dramatic as many of the drivers raced for the finish on the 1.5-mile track, knowing it would end badly when they ran out of gas.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. had run pretty much around 14th position most of the day, but after the final pit stops he had a fast car, running around the sixth or seventh position and he had the fuel to finish in third place, as the cars who didn't fell off.

It was a sad sight to see so many cars slowing on the final lap as they ran out of fuel. The battle for fuel management may play a big part at the remaining four intermediate tracks.

Stewart was followed by Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski in fifth place. The points lead is held by Harvick with Stewart seven points behind.

Five-time champ Jimmie Johnson finished 10th and dropped two slots to eighth in the points standings, though he did run strong during the race leading 39 laps.

If this is a preview of how the Chase will play out especially at the intermediate tracks, Hamlin looks to be out of title contention, Stewart is back in winning form and Ryan Newman may be a sleeper in the Chase who ran at the front with his boss several times.

At Chicagoland Speedway, Stewart was on fire and it looks like the Chase is going to be fun to watch with emphasis on crew chiefs and their strategy playing a major part in the outcome.

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