'Smoke' sends a signal

Well, hello there, Tony Stewart.

Where have you been?

The dynamics of the Chase for the Sprint Cup certainly got shuffled in a hurry Monday at Chicagoland Speedway, where one of the favorites, Jeff Gordon, ran out of gas, and Stewart, one of the guys who latched onto one of the last spots in the 12-driver field, bolted into championship-contending form.

Stewart is now second in points behind Kevin Harvick, most certainly a boost to the NASCAR marketing plan.

Not bad for a guy who was only one of two Chase drivers without a victory heading into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Stewart is also one of the best guys on pit road when it comes to the media. He can also be an ornery snot, depending on his mood, the nature of the question, and whether or not he thinks the reporter is a moron. Either or, it always makes for entertaining stuff.

And in this day and age, sports is all about marketing and entertainment. Stewart — aka "Smoke" — is as good as it gets, even when he puts on his Grumpy Pants persona.

Asked about his championship prospects after winning the race, Stewart said:

"One day doesn't change the whole season."

True, there's still a lot of racing left before NASCAR gathers in Homestead, Fla., in late November to decide the 2011 champion. But Stewart is most definitely in the mix, ending a 32-race losing streak and most importantly, coming up with three consecutive top-10 finishes.

"Counting Tony Stewart out? That's pretty funny he counts himself out," Harvick said.

That's typical Stewart, who grumbled before the race, "We've got to have a revelation to get through the next 10 weeks."

Well, that seems to be happening right now.

On the flip side, Gordon — one of the favorites to win another championship — stumbled out of the gate. He ran out of gasand finished 24th, dropping him from third to 11th in the title chase.

"It's not going to be handed to us because we've been kicking butt the last five races coming into the Chase," Gordon said before racing in Chicago. "It doesn't matter what we did then. It matters the next 10."

That proved to be true. The good news is there is always another week.

Next stop is New Hampshire. And Gordon's resume there is impressive. He is a three-time winner.

But for Stewart fans, the hope is that there will be Smoke in the air again.


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