KANSAS CITY, Kan. —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 Stewart the race lead, 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."
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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
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."
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."
The final outcome came down to strategy, and it started to shape as a race that would be decided on fuel mileage. Then Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led 41 laps early before bad breaks ruined his day, brought out the final caution of the race when an engine problem spilled oil on the track.
Greg Biffle went to pit road as the leader, while Stewart was second. Biffle and his crew still didn't seem sure of what to do as he pulled into his spot, but Stewart and Grubb were certain. Stewart raced off pit road into the lead, with Kasey Kahne and Johnson in pursuit. Both also took two tires.
Biffle, the first driver to take four tires, restarted in fourth and admitted to overruling crew chief Greg Erwin, who only wanted to take two tires.
"I feel bad. Probably the wrong thing to do," said Biffle.
Stewart took off on the restart with 26 laps to go, and all the drivers on four tires quickly sliced through the field. But it was Jeff Gordon who made up the most ground. He was closing in on Stewart but simply ran out of laps to catch him and settled for second, but 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 and was followed by Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch.