HAMPTON, Ga. -- Just when it seemed NASCAR's playoffs couldn't get any more puzzling, go figure this latest twist: The hottest driver during this Chase for the Nextel Cup isn't even in it.
Tony Stewart, who missed the cut in September, got his second win of the playoff season in yesterday's Bass Pro Shops 500. Through seven Chase races, the 2005 Nextel Cup champion has scored more points, 995, than any current contender.
"But we're not in the Chase," Stewart retorted rhetorically to a flurry of questions he dismissed as "what-ifs and coulda-shouldas." He'd had an easier time out on Atlanta Motor Speedway, holding off three Chase contenders in the late laps: in finishing order, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth.
Were he in contention for the title, Stewart maintained, he probably wouldn't have done this well lately.
"If we were in the Chase, we wouldn't have been able to do what we did at Kansas City," he said of the Oct. 1 win, when he coasted to the finish line out of gas. "Kansas City might have turned out totally different because we wouldn't have been able to take that chance [on fuel]."
Then he turned to defense of the contenders who have taken a lot of commentary - including from themselves - about what points leader Kenseth has been calling a "sloppy" Chase so far.
"There's a lot of pressure on those guys," Stewart said. "Sometimes it gets you off your game a little bit. Sometimes it makes you be a little bit conservative. Sometimes, because of the pressure, you make mistakes. Those guys are in a totally different situation than we are. So it's easier for us to go out and just try to win races.
"Please do not try to turn and twist this thing and make it a media frenzy on what-ifs and coulda-shouldas," Stewart said. "It is what it is. Leave it the way it is."
Kenseth stayed at the top of the standings with his respectable fourth-place finish. He'd come into yesterday's race with an average finish of 12th in the first six Chase races.
"Other people's troubles have kind of put us in the points lead," Kenseth said of a chaotic Chase in which bad luck has struck every other contender - some twice or even three times. "So it feels good tonight to be competitive, and keep it."
Johnson's second-place finish vaulted him to second in the Chase, just 26 points behind Kenseth. Johnson extended his surge to three straight weeks after a second-place finish at Charlotte on Oct. 14 and a win at Martinsville, Va., on Oct. 21.
"I'm closer than I've ever been, number-wise, to the lead in the Chase," said Johnson, who's been a contender for the championship in all five seasons since he graduated to Cup level. "I'm optimistic."
But after Johnson, the standings have spread out somewhat with three races remaining. Rookie Denny Hamlin limped into third place in points with an eighth-place run yesterday but is 65 behind Kenseth.
Earnhardt and Jeff Burton are tied for fourth, 84 out. Kevin Harvick plunged from second in points, just 36 behind Kenseth, to sixth, 121 behind, after fighting an ill-handling car and finishing 31st yesterday.
Earnhardt took a long shot at winning by staying out on the track on worn tires during the next-to-last caution period and inheriting the lead.
But Stewart, on fresh tires, flashed past Earnhardt quickly after the restart with 11 laps left. Johnson also got around Earnhardt but was no real threat to Stewart after that.
"We knew we could get by the 8 [Earnhardt] because tires were so important," Stewart said of a track noted for its abrasive surface.
Stewart had whipped his Chevrolet into the pits a split second before the commitment line, and Johnson snatched his steering wheel to follow, almost clipping Stewart.
"I wanted to get the tires that they did," Earnhardt said, "but they were swapping and juking and carrying on coming onto the pit road, so I just kind of got left out there - sort of like [the children's game] Duck-Duck- Goose."
One more caution followed, after a wreck that collected veteran Mark Martin and all but knocked him out of contention for the title in this, his final full Cup season.
"It really did matter who got through traffic better on those last two restarts," Johnson said. "Tony got up to clean air, and off he went."
Kasey Kahne wrecked on Lap 248 and devastated his championship chances, falling to ninth in the standings, 210 points behind. Kahne had been favored to win here and continue his surge at the other two 1.5-mile tracks remaining, Texas Motor Speedway next week and Homestead-Miami in the finale on Nov. 19.
But Kahne plowed into David Stremme, crashing them both.
"I just drove into him," Kahne said. Had he kept going, "it was just a matter of time until we were going to be leading. ... But, driver error. I screwed up."
Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.