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Stewart Opens Chase With 1st Victory Of Season

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125635516 Stewart Opens Chase With 1st Victory Of Season

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)

JOLIET, IL (AP)  Tony Stewart ended his season-long funk, winning for the first time this year in the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Stewart had one of the best cars Monday at Chicagoland Speedway, where NASCAR’s title-deciding series opened a day late because of rain Sunday.

That was a gift of sorts for Stewart, who had a migraine headache throughout the rainy day. Given an extra day’s rest, the two-time champion broke a 32-race losing streak dating to California last October.

Stewart stretched his final tank of fuel to the finish — something he had failed to do in the Chase opener at New Hampshire last year. Stewart ran out of gas with a lap to go last year, a swing that cost him five spots in the standings, and he never recovered to challenge for the title.

Now it’s the competition that has to worry. Stewart jumped from ninth in the standings to second, just seven points behind runner-up Kevin Harvick.

Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, points leader Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth were among the drivers who ran out of gas on the last lap, and all plummeted in the final finishing order.

Kevin Harvick, who started the race tied with Busch for the points lead, held on for second after his Richard Childress Racing team told him to run wide open and not worry about fuel.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. capitalized on so many drivers ahead of running out of gas to finish third, his best finish since he was second at Kansas 14 weeks ago. The strong result pushed him from 10th to fifth in the standings.

Denny Hamlin, who used the second wild-card spot to make it into the Chase, had the worst day of the 12 championship contending drivers. A vibration forced him to pit out of sequence, which dropped him a lap down from the leaders. He could never make it back, and a flat tire later sealed his 31st-place finish.

A year after nearly ending Johnson’s run, Hamlin is probably now out of title contention.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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