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JOLIET, IL - SEPTEMBER 19:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, celebrates with the checkered flag after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 19, 2011 in Joliet, Illinois.Tony Stewart ended his season-long debacle, by winning the opening race of the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup.  And he put the nightmare of running out of gas at the first Chase race last season behind him. Oh, did I mention this was his first win of the 2011 season?

Without question, Stewart had one of the more dominant cars Monday, as the race was pushed back a day due to rain in the Joliet, Illinois area. The rain couldn’t have come at a better time for Stewart, as he was suffering from a migraine most of Sunday. After a day’s worth of rest, Stewart ended his 32 race winless streak, dating back to California last October.

Stewart was able to stretch his tank of fuel to the finish, unlike many other ‘Chasers’, whom did not have the finish desired in order to kick things off for this years Chase.By saving fuel during a 50-lap green-flag run to the finish, Stewart, who started 26th, crossed the stripe .941 seconds ahead of hard-charging Kevin Harvick to win his first race of the season and the 40th of his career, tying him with Mark Martin for 16th on the all-time list.

So, who should be worried at this point with only nine races left? EVERYONE. Stewart jumped from ninth in points to second, something that should ‘worry’ most drivers, as this is the first time this season the No. 14 teams seems to be running on all cylinders.

NSCS: Tony Stewart Wins Fuel Mileage Race In Chicago- Chase Gets Interesting“It’s huge,” said a happy Stewart in Victory Lane. ”We’ve had a rough year, so this is a good way to start it off.” The rest of the top-five were Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski. All of which are in this seasons Chase.

Johnson finished 10th after NASCAR demoted pole-sitter Matt Kenseth– also out of gas — to 21st for getting a push from J.J. Yeley through Turns 3 and 4 on the final lap. NASCAR rules prohibit one car from assisting another on the last lap.

As Chicagoland is now behind us, all of our focus will be pointed towards New Hampshire Motor Speedway next week. Dare we say Stewart-Haas Racing will be as dominant as they were there last July? It’s quite possible. Even though Ryan Newman led a 1-2 finish for SHR, Stewart is led to believe this could be another great ‘opportunity’ to take over the points lead.

Several ‘Chasers’ ran out of fuel during today’s race, including: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Jeff Gordon. All of these drivers plummeted in the final finishing order.

Junior capitalized on other’s misfortune, as he pushed for a third place finish. Today’s strong finish was not only his best finish since he finished second at Kansas 14 weeks ago, but it also bumped him from 10th in points to fifth in the standings.

Johnson finished P10, which dropped him two spots in the standings to a current eighth spot.“I really felt like I had done enough,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what I did so desperately wrong.”

Denny Hamlin, who nearly missed the cut for the Chase, had the worst luck today out of all Chase drivers.  A vibration forced him to pit early, which dropped him a lap down from the leaders. He could never make it back, and a flat tire later sealed a disappointing 31st-place finish. In just a span of a year, Hamlin went from nearly winning the Chase to being out of contention, something many had not expect going into Daytona earlier this season.

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