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Stewart back in victory lane

The Baltimore Sun

Auto Racing JOLIET, Ill. -- Twenty races had passed since Tony Stewart climbed a fence, his way of celebrating NASCAR victories.

So he wasn't about to let Matt Kenseth get around him in the waning laps of yesterday's USG Sheetrock 400, even though Kenseth got three excellent shots on restarts after late caution flags.

After Stewart earned his first win this season and climbed the fence at Chicagoland Speedway, the two-time Nextel Cup champion said, "I'm more overjoyed than anything. I'm glad we got the monkey off our back, at least for one week.

"But this should have been the fourth or fifth time we'd been sitting in this room [as a winner] after a race is over. Whether it's been fuel mileage or bad luck, we just haven't been able to close one off."

The race really belonged to Stewart after Kenseth's first shot at him, on a restart with 37 laps remaining of the 267. That caution had come out because of the elimination of their only serious competitor, Jimmie Johnson, who crashed after leading the second-most laps to Stewart for the day.

For two laps, Stewart in a Chevrolet and Kenseth in a Ford dueled side by side, and at one point Kenseth almost completed the pass.

"There very easily could have been a different outcome if he'd cleared us on that restart," Stewart said.

Turbulence is a major factor in passing at the 1.5-mile track, and the duel was for the "clean air."

But Stewart drifted high to block Kenseth.

"As long as I didn't give him the outside I felt like I was in good shape," Stewart said.

Then Kenseth drove low, and "I stayed under him for about two laps," Kenseth said, "and I was so loose I was afraid I was going to wipe us both out, so I had to get back behind him."

And that was it, even through two more restarts and two more Kenseth challenges. Stewart remained in front.

"I ran the bottom to try to disturb the air on his car," Stewart said.

And so he climbed the fence for the first time since Nov. 6 at Texas Motor Speedway, two races from the end of last season.

All this season as Stewart's losing streak dragged on, he maintained that he wasn't worried about it.

"I really felt that way," Stewart said. "When I've got a car every week that I know is capable of running up front, well, you know you can't have bad luck forever."

He kept saying a hot streak could begin at anytime, because, as he reiterated last night, "There's been times when we couldn't do anything wrong and had all the luck go our way. It just goes in cycles, it seems.

"I haven't been freaking out about it."

But Stewart had made many wonder if the winless first half of this season was beginning to get to him last week. In the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, Stewart was running second to teammate Denny Hamlin when he rear-ended Hamlin and took both drivers out of the race.

Stewart then blamed Hamlin, saying that he had "checked up," or slowed suddenly, and went on to say that Hamlin "doesn't know the meaning of teamwork."

Their team owner, Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, flew into Chicago especially for a quick meeting with Stewart and Hamlin on Saturday, then left to resume work with the Redskins.

"Joe Gibbs' strength is that he knows how to motivate people and keep a team atmosphere," Stewart said. At the meeting, "Denny and I talked and we had a great conversation. ... We probably worked better today than we've ever worked as teammates."

The Nextel Cup series has next weekend off, with the next stop at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stewart's beloved home track, July 29.

As passionate as he is about the Brickyard, Stewart refused to think about it yesterday.

"I'm taking this momentum on vacation," he said.

Ed Hinton writes for Tribune Publishing newspapers.

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