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Stewart Soaring, Gordon Issues Rallying Cry At New Hampshire

It’s time for Round 2 of NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship,” and the four former winners of the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are at opposite ends of the point standings.

2003 Brickyard winner Kevin Harvick holds a seven-point lead over two-time Brickyard 400 champion Tony Stewart heading into Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. But two former Brickyard winners who have won the famed NASCAR race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a combined seven times hope to climb back into contention.

Three-time Brickyard winner Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports finished 10th in last Monday’s rain-rescheduled race at Chicagoland Speedway, which landed him eighth in points, 16 behind Harvick. There is a greater sense of urgency with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon – a four-time winner at Indianapolis from nearby Pittsboro, Ind. Gordon was on the wrong end of a fuel mileage race and finished in the same spot as his car number - 24. That leaves him 11th in the standings, 25 points out of the lead.

Gordon qualified seventh Friday at New Hampshire and will start behind sixth-place qualifier Harvick.

“We are excited about this weekend; it is a great track for us,” Gordon said Friday. “Obviously, the first race did not go so well for us at Chicago. We’ve got some work to do, and this is a great place for us to come to get that done. I look forward to the challenges that we are going to face over the next nine weeks and what we are capable of doing.”

The fuel mileage race Monday at Chicago was a hot topic of conversation Friday at New Hampshire, but four-time Sprint Cup champion Gordon believes that’s all part of racing.

“I think as long as the race is exciting and is interesting, then it is good,” Gordon said. “You win them however you can win them. It is definitely something that we have talked a lot about all year long, about how to save fuel. We were just too far short last week. We probably would have done it a little bit different if we had to do it over again; I guess maybe a lot of people would. But we didn’t have good fuel mileage in general, which Hendrick Motorsports is making a lot of power right now, getting good fuel mileage is not a plus for us but Junior (Dale Earnhardt Jr., teammate at Hendrick Motorsports), so there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to as well.

"We had a lot of discussions about that this week and this track very easily could come down to fuel mileage, so we are going to try to do everything we can this weekend to get a little bit better fuel mileage and to have a good race car.”

The driver that played the fuel mileage angle the best was two-time Brickyard 400 winner Stewart of nearby Columbus, Ind. He finished the race on fumes, but it didn’t matter as he scored his first victory of the season at a perfect time -- in the first race of the Chase.

“At least we got off on the right foot,” Stewart said. “It just means that we are off to a good start for this year’s Chase. We had a dream weekend as an organization here the last trip. You just try to see if you can duplicate it.

“I’ll be honest: I didn’t have that confidence until the last couple of weeks. We had three great runs in a row and three totally different racetracks, and that is what makes you feel better about it. You feel better as you go, but, there are no guarantees and you feel like, unless you’ve been doing it and been good at it every week, you never feel like you are in the right spot. I still think we’re taking it a week at a time. I don’t know that I look at it any further than that. We’ve had days where we were really good and the next week totally terrible. It shows that you have to take it a week at a time.

"I’m not worried about how big of a threat I think I am or anybody else thinks we are. It still goes down to doing your job each day, and you take it one day at a time still.”

Stewart starts 20th Sunday, but his teammate and fellow Chase driver Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind., won the pole Friday.

Harvick, the points leader, starts 10th on Sunday and is confident he can continue his fine start to the Chase.

“Obviously, it was a good start,” Harvick said. “It was almost identical the way that it had played out last year with the start to the Chase with everybody running out of gas here (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) last year and some guys making it. It’s kind of ironic that you go from a mile racetrack to a 1.5-mile racetrack and have a very similar situation but just glad that it all worked out because you can put yourself in a hole. I felt good about the way it shook out.”’

It was back in January at the annual NASCAR Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour that Harvick’s team owner, Richard Childress, said it was time to kick five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson “off his throne.” That is what Harvick intends to do.

“Well, sometimes he gets excited,” Harvick said of Childress. “I don’t know if that was the absolute right thing to say in public, but I think all in all Richard is very confident in us as drivers and feels like he spends the money and does the things to be competitive for a championship and just wants to win. That’s just what he likes about racing, other than his grandkids being involved in the sport now.

"With Richard, it’s all about winning whatever. Whether it’s a race, a practice, a championship, he wants to be up on that stage again, and we want to be right there with him. It’s one of those things where you just have to roll along with it. We’re one week in and it’s a long ways to go, anything can happen. We’re happy with the way that it started, but we’re definitely not going to get to confident about it. We’re just going to take it one week at a time.”

Despite the fast start, Harvick believes there is plenty of work to do and can’t gain too much confidence off the opening race.

“Look, they can all be land mines,” he said. “There’s not a specific racetrack that I look at from our standpoint that stands out and says this is going to be a disaster. They can all be disasters, and they can all be beneficial. This is just another racetrack on the schedule. Obviously, there are more 1.5-mile racetracks on the schedule than there are anything else, but I’m not trying to be an ass about anything to us they are all just another race at this point. They all pay the same points. We just go to a different location and we have a different car and we show up, and that’s just how we are approaching it. It’s just another race, and we’re going to show up and hopefully take the most points out of it."

Although he is in eighth place in the standings, Johnson is the driver with the bull's eye on his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. He has won the last five Chases in every way imaginable, from running away with it to a dramatic come-from-behind effort last season.

And even though he finished 10th in the fuel mileage race at Chicago, his car was a major contender.

“We had a great showing in Chicago,” Johnson said. “I’m very proud of the effort. Unfortunately, we came up a lap short on fuel. We went back and looked at it, and we had a bit more of a deficit on fuel on that final run than we kind of thought. I knew that I had saved fuel, but I had a bigger window to make up than we anticipated once we got home and got a closer look at things.

"So, to run out coming to the white (flag) and still finish 10th is amazing and shocking to me to roll all the way around the racetrack with the engine off and still finish in the top 10, and a top 10 at the start of the Chase. I’ve had years where we’ve started far worse than that. So yeah, we should have gone forward in points; especially with how we ran all day long, but you’ve got to run every lap and it shows how buttoned up you need to be, top to bottom, to have a shot at this championship. And fuel mileage has never really been a strong suit to trust, and it’s something that we know we need to be better with.

"Tires don’t fall off like they used to; we don’t have cautions like we used to, and all that means is two tires, no tires, no cautions and you pit as early as you can. So, the game certainly has changed over the last year, or year and a half, and we need to be a little bit better in those situations but we’re strong and fast. That’s what I’m really proud of."

Eight of the drivers in the top 10 were Chase contenders, which underlines the impressive depth in this year’s battle for the Sprint Cup title. Johnson expects more of the same this weekend at New Hampshire.

“There are 12 guys that have a shot at it, and those 12 drivers are usually the cream of the crop on any given weekend, so it’s not shocking to me to be up there racing with those guys,” Johnson said. “You kind of expect it. I was wondering where the No. 24 (Jeff Gordon) was and where the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) was throughout the race. But it didn’t surprise me to see those guys up there.”

Johnson is particularly impressed with the man who won last week’s race. Stewart is the owner/driver of Stewart Haas Racing, which has an engineering agreement with Hendrick Motorsports, so the cars are pretty much the same that the four drivers at Hendrick drive every weekend.

That is just another factor that Johnson believes makes Stewart a legitimate threat for the title.

“For me, I feel like I have felt like if the No. 14 (Stewart) makes the Chase he’s a threat,” Johnson said. “I know the equipment he is in, we all know what Tony’s capable of, and I know Darian (Grubb, Stewart’s crew chief) very well. I think it’s kind of separating us all out, but I think we all can say those are the facts that we believe in, and once he made the Chase we all knew he was going to be a factor.

"After leaving last weekend, I thought, 'This is just so wild how two to three races prior to him coming into the Chase there’s one energy and one feel of what’s going on he goes out and wins the opener and now he’s a championship threat all of a sudden.' It’s always been there."

***

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