HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) – Crashing and banging on the racetrack is an accepted part of life in NASCAR. To a lesser extent, so are mind games.

Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, the top two contenders in the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship, appear to be trying to psyche out the other.

Stewart holds a 15-point lead over Johnson heading into today’s Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, one of four remaining events.

Their sparring goes back to the season-opening Daytona 500 when Johnson and Stewart bumped each other following the checkered flag. Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, later swore at Stewart and had to be restrained.

Things settled down quickly, but the conflict flared again in the spring race at Phoenix, when Johnson said Stewart made an obscene gesture as Johnson tried to pass. Moments later, Johnson slammed into the rear of Stewart’s car, sending the 2002 champion sliding into the wall and leaving the drivers pointing fingers at each other.

The unease between the teams has continued. Last week at Martinsville, Knaus made some comments over his radio during practice about how Johnson’s car was better and how he could beat Stewart.

Stewart’s crew heard what Knaus said, and was less than amused.

Then, late in the race, Stewart bumped aside Johnson as they battled for second place. Johnson was not able to catch Stewart before the end to return the favor and the two trailed race winner Jeff Gordon across the finish line.

Although he insists that mind games don’t work on him, and he won’t call the Martinsville bump payback, Stewart has made some pointed comments since the race. And he acknowledges that Knaus’ remarks have given him and his team additional motivation.

“I’ve been doing this for 26 years and I’ve played mind games with people and I’ve had people play mind games with me,” Stewart said. “When it comes to the mind game side of it, he’s bringing a knife to a gunfight.”

Knaus said the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. Johnson seems amused by the whole thing, particularly getting a rise out of Stewart.

Ryan Newman, third in the Chase, 63 points behind Stewart and 48 behind Johnson, will start from the pole today at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

He isn’t about to get involved in any of the mind games going on between the two drivers ahead of him in the standings.

“Luckily, my head is big enough and thick enough it’d be hard to break in,” Newman said, laughing. “I’m happy those guys are going at each other like that. That’s cool.”

Stewart qualified 10th and Johnson 12th for the race, meaning Johnson will be right behind Stewart when the green flag waves. But don’t expect any early fireworks in the 500-mile race.

“There’s too much riding on these races to do something stupid,” Johnson said. “Everybody will race hard, but we all know what’s at stake in these last four races.”


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