CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – First the alternator belt failed on Tony Stewart’s car, then the battery began to lose power. The only option was switching to a backup power source, and doing so meant turning off every fan inside his Chevrolet.

All in all, it was a terrible day at Kansas Speedway for Stewart.

And he still finished fourth.

Stewart’s knack for turning his bad days into gains – despite his troubles in Kansas, he still widened his lead in the points standings – is making it very hard for the rest of the field to challenge him in the Chase for the championship.

“He’s a tough customer,” Greg Biffle said. “He runs really well. He’s a smart race car driver. He thinks. He executes. They’re going to be very hard to beat.”

Biffle knows firsthand: He finished second in Kansas, but gained only 10 points on Stewart.

Heading into the fifth round of the 10-race title hunt, Stewart holds a 75-point advantage over Ryan Newman. He’s notched a top-five finish in three of the first four Chase events, and his lowest result was an 18th last month at Dover.

That consistency is making it impossible for the other drivers to stay with him in the standings. Even Newman has struggled despite scoring a win and three top fives.

Newman’s 23rd-place finish in Kansas cost him valuable ground in the standings. Now Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield are the only Chase drivers to not have a finish lower than 18th.

So it’s suddenly become Stewart’s championship to lose – and everyone knows it.

“We have to stay focused as a team, go out and do the best job we can,” Newman said. “Nothing that we do, aside from the obvious, would benefit us as far as Tony Stewart and his situation.”

Stewart, the 2002 series champion, isn’t stepping up to accept his second crown just yet. He steadfastly refuses to discuss hypothetical situations, focusing on one race at time.

“It’s so unpredictable right now,” he said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen with the guys at the front of the pack.”

Asked if he was comfortable as the points leader, or if he would prefer chasing another driver, Stewart said it didn’t matter either way.

“If I spent that much time worrying about what everybody else was doing, I’m really not doing my job as a driver,” he said. “It’s more important for me to make sure we’re doing everything 100 percent. We can’t control what they do anyway, so why worry about what they’re doing?

“The only thing we can control is what we do. We need to focus 100 percent of our energy on what we’re doing and not on what everybody else is doing.”

As Stewart prepares for the final stretch of the season, he takes a decided advantage with him. Of the six Chase races remaining on the schedule, Stewart has scored victories at five of the venues – including Lowe’s Motor Speedway, site of Saturday night’s race. The only track remaining on the schedule where Stewart has yet to record a victory is Texas, where the series races Nov. 6.

If the other Chase drivers are going to make up any ground, they’ll need Stewart to start slipping.

“They’re going to have to have another off day like they did at Dover and we’re going to have to not get a flat tire in order to close in on them,” Biffle said. “Just 10 points a race isn’t going to do it, and what are the chances of me finishing second for the next six races?

“That’s pretty unlikely, as well, so we can only do as good as we can do and can’t really worry about the outcome. We’re worried about it, but we really can’t do anything about the outcome of (Stewart).”

AP-ES-10-12-05 1536EDT


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