Tony Stewart didn't have time for a debate. He had one last chance to grab the win at Kansas Speedway, and it came down to one critical decision.
Two tires, or four?
The two-time series champion asked for two on the final pit stop Sunday, and crew chief Darian Grubb immediately agreed with the strategy. The rapid thinking got the race lead for Stewart, known as "Smoke", and he held on over the final 26 laps for his fourth win of the season.
"He asked me what I thought, I kind of put my vote in, and he said it was exactly what he was thinking," Stewart said. "It made me feel good that we both agreed on the same thing that quick. It was like, to both of us, it wasn't even an option. We pretty much knew what we both needed."
What he needed was a win.
After a rocky start to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Stewart found himself in danger of allowing Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson to pull the title out of his reach in just the third of 10 races. Stewart went into the race fifth in the standings, 106 points behind leader Martin, and in a slump of five of six finishes outside the top 10.
Grubb knew they needed to turn it up, and soon, to stay in title contention.
"We knew going into the Chase it was a must-win situation," Grubb said. "You're going to have to win races against these competitors. You have to go in with the mindset you have to win races."
The victory at Kansas moved Stewart up one spot in the standings to fourth, and his deficit was cut from 106 points to 67 behind Martin.
Stewart then raced through his celebration to fly off to Iowa, to compete with teammate Ryan Newman in the Knoxville Dirt Late Model Nationals, which were rained out Saturday night.
"As soon as I get done with this stimulating conversation that we're having here ... then I'm going to get to Knoxville as quickly as I can," he said in his post-race news conference. "That's my goal, to get out of here soon. Just a hint."
Martin, the pole-sitter, finished seventh and maintained his lead in the standings. He's up 18 points over three-time defending series champion Johnson, who finished ninth after a bad pit call put him in traffic that he couldn't overcome.
"We'll have to get home and look at the car and see what is going on there," Johnson said. "So many guys took two, and we took four. There at the end, we were just trying to get some track position back and I just didn't have the speed that I had the start of the race and had lost a couple of more spots.
"At the end of the day, we finished ninth and that isn't too bad. We hate to see guys we are racing in points ahead of us."
Martin wasn't in a celebratory mood despite maintaining his lead: There were only three drivers within 100 points of him at the start of the race, now the field has seven within 103.
"Look at it however you want," Martin said. "What is there, seven more to go? I don't think we should be getting all hyped up about the tally right now, you know? We've got a lot of racing to go."
Gordon, who battled a poorly handling car at the start of the race, was thrilled with the final outcome — until a NASCAR official informed him he'd only gained one spot in the standings to seventh.
"That's it? Can't you read it different? Just tell me I'm fifth," he said.
He still cut his deficit from 122 points to 103.
Stewart said Gordon was coming fast in his rearview mirror.
"He was getting bigger," Stewart said. "The big thing was not to drive the tires off. We had a little left, but we didn't leave too much out there."
Biffle was third, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya, Denny Hamlin, Kahne and Martin.
David Reutimann was the only non-Chase driver in the top 11 with an eighth-place finish.
Chase leaders 1. Mark Martin5,5512. Jimmie Johnson-183. Juan Montoya-514. Tony Stewart-675. Kurt Busch-916. Denny Hamlin-997. Jeff Gordon-1038. Greg Biffle-1149. Ryan Newman-16410. Carl Edwards-16511. Kasey Kahne-19012. Brian Vickers-250Next race WHAT: Pepsi 500.
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Auto Club Speedway, Fontana, Calif.
TV: ABC 8 13, at 2:30 p.m.Copyright © 2015, CT Now