HAMPTON, GA. Don't bother asking Tony Stewart about what might have been.
The two-time NASCAR champion insists there's no frustration in winning races that make no difference in the standings - at least not to the defending Nextel Cup champion.
Stewart, bitterly disappointed after failing to qualify for NASCAR's 2006 playoffs by a mere 16 points, has won two of the first seven events in the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship. His win in Sunday's Bass Pro Shops 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway again stole the spotlight from the title contenders.
"If we were in the Chase, we wouldn't have been able to do what we did at Kansas City," Stewart said, referring to his Oct. 1 win. "We wouldn't have been able to take the chance of running out of gas."
Last year, Stewart won his second points championship without winning any of the 10 Chase events.
"There's a lot of pressure on those guys in the Chase. Sometimes, it gets you off your game a little bit and, sometimes, you just have to be more conservative than you'd want to be."
At this point, Stewart, who also wrapped up his first IROC championship here Saturday, is 11th in the points and racing only for pride and wins. This latest victory, his fourth of the season, clearly made him proud as he held off title contender Jimmie Johnson in the waning laps.
Stewart led a race-high 145 of the 325 laps on the 1.5-mile oval Sunday and, afterward, grabbed the checkered flag after a somewhat perilous climb up the flagstand in celebration.
"It's better than last year," said Stewart after jumping out of his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet. "We were in it last year and couldn't win any of these, so it's a lot of fun."
The runner-up finish was just fine with Johnson, though, as he moved within 26 points of series leader Matt Kenseth with three races remaining.
Chase contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth fought it out for third place, with Earnhardt winning the battle by inches.
Kenseth, who started twith a 41-point lead over Johnson, said his car was too tight to get by Earnhardt.
"We finished fourth and we had a 44th-place car Saturday, so my team did a great job with it. That's how we need to run to have a shot. All the rest of those guys are going to be running in the top five and we need to be there in order to have a shot at it."