'Idiot' Stewart? Big win means no

JOLIET, Ill. -- Tony Stewart is a bumbling idiot.

It had to be said, even if it is a bit premature -- and in jest.

But the two-time Sprint Cup champion said on Thursday that five of the 12 Chase drivers didn't have a chance to win the championship, putting himself at the top of the nonfactors because of the way he ran in the regular season. He said if he wins the title then "I'll declare I'm a total bumbling idiot."

What Stewart is -- after Monday's victory at Chicagoland Speedway -- is a championship contender.

The only thing that could have made him a "bumbling idiot" was to run out of fuel on the final lap as several title contenders did, as Stewart did in the Chase opener a year ago at New Hampshire when he had the checkered flag in sight.

Instead, Stewart goes to Sunday's race at New Hampshire (2 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN) with only a seven-point deficit to Kevin Harvick.

What we should be calling Stewart is a sandbagger. It's pretty ridiculous to believe a driver of his caliber would go through the entire season without a win, particularly since he'd never done that in the previous 12 Cup seasons. It's pretty ridiculous when you look at how well Stewart ran earlier in the year not to believe he could put together a good stretch for the 10-race playoffs.

For the record, Stewart in his remarks last Thursday also eliminated from contention Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished third; Kurt Busch, who finished sixth; and Matt Kenseth, who won the pole and initially was listed as eighth before NASCAR dropped him to 21st for being pushed on the final lap by J.J. Yeley after Kenseth ran out of fuel.

The only one Stewart seemingly had correct was Denny Hamlin, who finished 31st and never was a threat Monday.

"Counting Tony Stewart out, it's pretty funny he counts himself out," Harvick said after finishing second to take the points lead. "He's won a ton of races, and to start off the Chase like they did today, have the notes and teammates and things to lean on at Hendrick Motorsports and all the stuff they have to lean on, no way they are going to be totally out to lunch.

"So he shouldn't count himself out. That's pretty funny."

It is funny.

And ironic.

And perhaps scary for the rest of the competition considering Stewart is headed to the track where he finished second to Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman earlier this year.

After all, he is the last driver not named Jimmie Johnson to win the title, if you can remember all the way back to 2005. He's been in the Chase all but one season, so he knows how to handle the pressure.

He's also on a bit of a roll, having finished third, seventh and first in his last three starts to go from almost out of the Chase to a serious threat.

The only thing he didn't have before the weather cleared and allowed the playoffs to begin a day late, was a victory.

That was wearing on Stewart, to be honest. That is why, after a ninth-place finish at Michigan five races ago, he unloaded on himself and his team despite a solid run. Remember?

"If we are going to run this bad, it really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase or not because we are going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else that actually can run for a championship is going to be trying to take because our stuff is so bad right now," Stewart said then. "We're wasting one of those top-12 spots right now."

What he did was waste crew chief Darian Grubb's time trying to raise the morale of the No. 14 crew that believed it could get the driver in the position he's in now.

"That's Tony's mindset," Grubb said with a smile. "We all work too hard to come in feeling that way. … Even after those comments, it took a little bit to rally the troops and keep the morale up."

Grubb admits he has conversations occasionally to keep Stewart pumped up and "let him know what we're doing to get better."

Grubb said runs like Monday "makes him a little more confident that we're not just blowing smoke."

As for that idiot comment, Grubb said, "We call him that [idiot] every once in a while ourselves."

Stewart called a few non-Chasers idiots early on Monday for the way they drove him tighter than he expected. He said he plans to adopt a similar attitude, noting he's "tired of being the guy that gives a guy a break."

"Guys don't care whether they make anybody mad on the racetrack or not," Stewart said. "They're just going to do what they want to do and they're only solely worried about themselves. So we're going to start adopting that attitude."

Stewart, also jokingly -- OK, we'll leave that open for debate -- called a room full of reporters idiots when he walked in on Grubb being asked about his "idiot" quote from Thursday.

"This room is still full of more idiots than I am," Stewart said. "On the record."

But the real idiots are those that believe "Smoke" won't be a factor in the Chase. He's too hard-headed and stubborn to roll over and play dead as long as there's a chance.

And now he has a real chance.

"I've had a miserable year, but the last three weeks we've really started coming into it," Stewart said.

Stewart I've had a miserable year, but the last three weeks we've really started coming into it.

-- Tony Stewart

Stewart also has a mindset that he has nothing to lose, which is why he didn't hesitate to gamble on fuel mileage when, as Grubb noted, nobody really had a choice because of the way the race played out.

"Where we're at in the Chase right now, we had to press," Stewart said.

Press? He started the Chase only 12 points out of the lead. He's a lot closer to the lead now than Johnson, who is 16 out after running out of gas on the final lap to turn a top-four finish into a 10th.

Earnhardt is a lot closer, too. And to think many of you scoffed at the suggestion last week that he could make a run at this. He looked more like the driver who earlier in the year ranked as high as third in points.

"I felt like we would do well in the Chase," Earnhardt said. "These are good tracks for me. If felt like we would rebound and return to the form we had at the start of the year."

But it is understandable that one could count Earnhardt out before the playoff began. It's unimaginable to count out a driver like Stewart who has won the title twice even if it hasn't been the best of years.

It's hard to count out any driver in a season where fuel mileage races are so prevalent, allowing those who normally wouldn't stand a chance to have good runs and make drivers who have dominated feel like bumbling idiots.

Kenseth definitely felt like one after seeing his day spoiled by an empty tank and a seldom-called rule that doesn't allow a competitor to be pushed on the final lap.

"That was beyond frustrating," Kenseth said afterward on Twitter. "Running 50 laps half throttle and still running out of gas stinks. Hope we can race cars the next nine weeks."

He's right, there have been too many fuel mileage races this season. Stewart lost one earlier this year that made him feel like an idiot.

If he maintains the run he's on for nine more weeks, he may have to declare himself one officially.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.