HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) – Don’t bother asking Tony Stewart about what might have been.

The two-time NASCAR champion insists there’s no frustration in winning races that make no difference in the standings – at least not to the defending Nextel Cup champion.

Stewart, bitterly disappointed after failing to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs by a mere 16 points, has won two of the first seven events in the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship. His win in Sunday’s Bass Pro Shops 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway again stole the spotlight from the title contenders.

“If we were in the Chase, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did at Kansas City,” Stewart said, referring to his Oct. 1 win. “We wouldn’t have been able to take the chance of running out of gas.”

Last year, Stewart won his second points championship without winning any of the 10 Chase events.

“There’s a lot of pressure on those guys in the Chase. Sometimes, it gets you off your game a little bit and, sometimes, you just have to be more conservative than you’d want to be.”

At this point, Stewart, who also wrapped up his first IROC championship here Saturday, is 11th in the points and racing only for pride and wins. This latest victory, his fourth of the season, clearly made him proud as he held off title contender Jimmie Johnson in the waning laps.

Stewart led a race-high 145 of the 325 laps on the 1.5-mile oval Sunday and, afterward, literally grabbed the checkered flag after a somewhat perilous climb up the flagstand in celebration.

“It’s better than last year,” said Stewart after jumping out of his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet. “We were in it last year and couldn’t win any of these, so it’s a lot of fun.”

The runner-up finish was just fine with Johnson, though, as he moved within 26 points of series leader Matt Kenseth with three races remaining.

Johnson got off to a slow start in the Chase and was eighth, 156 points behind then-leader Jeff Burton just four weeks ago. But a second-place finish at Charlotte followed by the wins in Martinsville and second place here have put him right back into the mix for a shot at winning the one honor that has escaped him in his first four seasons in NASCAR’s top stock car series.

Chase contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth fought it out for third place, with Earnhardt winning the battle by inches.

Earnhardt, who overcame losing a lap with a flat tire early in the race, took the lead when he stayed on track while all the other drivers on the lead lap pitted under caution on lap 306.

It appeared that Earnhardt, who was running third before the caution, was snookered as Stewart and Johnson waited until the last possible moment to commit to pit lane and Earnhardt wasn’t able to react quickly enough to follow.

“I don’t think we would’ve run third if we’d have gone in,” Earnhardt said. “It wasn’t a bad decision in the end.”

As for his battle to the finish with Kenseth, Junior added, “It was like old times (in the Busch Series). I like racing against him. He’s my good friend.”

Kenseth, who started the day with a 41-point lead over Johnson, said his car was too tight to get by Earnhardt and his old tires.

Non-contender Carl Edwards took only two tires on the last pit stop and restarted right behind Earnhardt in second, followed by Stewart, Johnson and Kenseth.

Stewart grabbed second on the restart on lap 310 before a multicar crash brought out the last of nine caution flags in the race. The green flag came back out on lap 315 and Stewart shot past Earnhardt into the lead.

Two other Chasers had top 10 finishes, with Jeff Gordon sixth and rookie Denny Hamlin eighth. Everyone else in the title chase had a tough day.

Burton wound up 13th.

, a lap down, after having to pit under green late in the race with a flat tire; Kyle Busch crashed in the early going and wound up 27th; Kevin Harvick had handling problems all day and finished 31st; Mark Martin got caught up in the late crash and wound up 36th; and Kasey Kahne, who won at Atlanta in March and was the prerace favorite, crashed and finished 38th.

That scrambled the Chase standings, with Hamlin moving from fourth to third, 65 points behind Kenseth, and Earnhardt moving into a tie with Burton for fourth, 84 points back.

Harvick slipped from second all the way to sixth, 121 points behind, while Gordon – who survived getting hit it the rear by Jamie McMurray after slowing with a flat tire – jumped from ninth to seventh but lost ground in the points, from 141 to 146.

Martin, Kahne and Busch, all 201 or more points behind, were all but eliminated from contention.

AP-ES-10-29-06 2100EST

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