The Associated Press
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 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 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 Sunday on the 1.5-mile oval.
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.
Johnson was eighth, 156 points behind then-leader Jeff Burton just four weeks ago. But a second-place finish at Charlotte followed by the wins in Martinsville and second place here have put him right back into the mix for a shot at winning the one honor that has escaped him in his first four seasons in NASCAR's top stock car series.
"We got off to a rough start [in the Chase], but we had the speed in the car and now we're getting the results," Johnson said. "It was a fun race. You really had to challenge yourself and scare yourself on every lap."
Chase contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth fought it out for third place, with Earnhardt winning the battle by inches.