JOLIET, Ill. &
Yes, Tony Stewart has been known to freak out from time to time. But his recent winless streak wasn't one of those times.
Stewart broke through for his first victory of the season on Sunday, holding off Matt Kenseth at Chicagoland Speedway to break a 20-race victory drought that dated to the end of last season.
But Stewart said he never really worried about being shut out of victory lane for longer than usual, because he had cars capable of winning more often than not this year.
"I haven't been freaking out about it," Stewart said. "I've been happy that we've been in the position that we've been in."
Stewart has been in position to win several races this season, coming up short because of plain old bad luck or occasional poor fuel economy &
an ongoing concern for the No. 20 team.
"I think if it was a situation where we couldn't run up front, and there were two or three teams that had stuff figured out and we couldn't compete with them and we were running 20th or 30th every week and couldn't figure out what to do to get into the top-five again, then you would be worried about not winning races," Stewart said.
But as long as the performance was there, Stewart figured he'd win sooner or later.
"When I've got a car every week where I know I at least have the capability of running up front, you know that you can't have bad luck forever," Stewart said.
Rediscovering victory lane was only one of the two pressing problems Stewart resolved over the weekend, as the two-time champion said he has patched his rift with upstart teammate Denny Hamlin after a lecture from team owner Joe Gibbs on Saturday.
Hamlin and Stewart spent the week trading barbs in the media after the two teammates wrecked at Daytona International Speedway last week. The situation became ugly enough for team owner Joe Gibbs to take a last-minute detour from a planned vacation and come to the track on Saturday to gather Stewart and Hamlin for a hastily arranged meeting.
Gibbs was not present at the track Sunday, but his son, team president J.D. Gibbs, said Stewart and Hamlin got a glimpse of how Gibbs handles his football team instead of the more laid-back demeanor the coach usually carries through the NASCAR garage area.
"He was a little more intense yesterday then he normally is in the racing world," Gibbs said.
Stewart called the meeting "great," praising Gibbs for his ability to get people to work together. He said he and Hamlin worked better together than ever before on the track on Sunday, using hand signals &
no, not the R-rated kind &
to communicate strategies during the race.
"You know, Denny's a young guy," Stewart said. "As far as teammates, we're only a year and a half into our relationship. And out of a half-hour meeting yesterday, it's probably going to make us stronger than ever."
But Stewart's victory on Sunday had more to do with his strong race car than the pep talk from his team owner &
and it certainly didn't hurt that Stewart's strongest competitor, Jimmie Johnson, hit the wall with 45 laps remaining after his tire suddenly went flat.
Johnson walked away without any serious injuries beyond a sore elbow, but it left his car mangled and ruined his chance at a victory.
"We were definitely going to try hard," Johnson said. "We had a good shot at it."
The accident jumbled pit strategies for the race leaders, most of whom only needed a splash of fuel to make it to the end when they pitted with 40 laps left.
Matt Kenseth pulled side-by-side to challenge Stewart on the restart, but Stewart held him off. Kenseth said that was his only real chance to get past Stewart &
but he nearly lost control of his car while making the move and backed off to finish second.
"I had that one shot at him, and I couldn't quite finish the pass," Kenseth said.
Kenseth couldn't mount a charge on subsequent restarts and held off teammate Carl Edwards to finish second. Edwards finished third, followed by Kevin Harvick and pole-sitter Casey Mears.
With two cars in the top three on Sunday, it was another step forward in what started off as a down year for the Roush-Fenway team.
"I think we've been working pretty hard, and we've been gaining some ground," Edwards said.
Now that Stewart is back in victory lane, he and the rest of the Cup field seem to be gaining ground on Hendrick.
Hendrick drivers Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Mears won 10 of the first 14 races. But Hendrick now has been shut out of victory lane for the past five races.
"I feel like we're still just a little bit off to be able to beat them every week, that's how I feel myself," Kenseth said. "But we're getting closer."
Stewart breaks winless streak
JOLIET, Ill. &