KANSAS CITY, Kan. Tony Stewart assures anyone who cares to listen that he is a changed man.
The one-time NASCAR Bad Boy has turned a new philosophy off the track into success on the track.
''We learned to eliminate variables that we can't control,'' said Stewart, whose quick temper has led to confrontations with other drivers, members of the media and even fans in the past. ''We just focus on the (variables) we do have control over.''
Those include the preparation he and his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team have been putting into each race. And that preparation is paying off big, so far, with Stewart going into Sunday's Banquet 400 at Kansas Speedway the fourth of 10 races in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship leading the standings.
In the past, Stewart might have reacted differently to some of the things he has shrugged off so far in 2005.
After a slow start, mostly caused by bad luck accidents, flat tires and mechanical failures Stewart got hot at midseason and streaked into the Chase.
At New Hampshire, in the Chase opener, Stewart appeared to have the fastest car all day, led the most laps and wound up losing a dramatic battle at the end to Ryan Newman.
The next week, at Dover, Stewart saw a string of 13 straight finishes of eighth or better, including five wins, end when he struggled with an ill-handling car. After finishing 18th, he fell all the way to fifth in the points.
Last Sunday, at Talladega, on a day when five of the 10 title contenders were involved in crashes that hurt their title chances, Stewart ran second to surprise winner Dale Jarrett and retook the series lead by four points over Newman.
Through it all, Stewart has stayed calm, focused and optimistic, a big difference from the way he appeared during his run to the Cup title in 2002.
That year, despite his success on the track, he punched a photographer, was often surly with media and acknowledges he wasn't having any fun.
''I think, with the controversy we had in our season in 2002, I'm real hungry to win one with a year like we're having this year,'' Stewart said. ''We're all having a great time, we're all having fun. I guarantee if we win this one it would be 10 times sweeter than winning the one we won in 2002.
''If we could finish this off the way we're going, it's something we can all look at the year and say we've had an awesome year together.''
Crew chief Greg Zipadelli said the change in Stewart is real.
''The difference is that he lets things roll off his back and keeps looking ahead instead of worrying about what happened yesterday or last week,'' Zipadelli said. ''This Tony Stewart is a lot more fun to be around. He's a happier person.''
According to Stewart, at 34, he's also a smarter person and driver.
''I would like to think so,'' he said. ''I think every year you get better and smarter as you go. Every race you go through you get a little smarter in some way. There's something you learn or something that happens that is an experience that somewhere down the road it's going to come back and you can use the knowledge that you gained from it.''
Now, with Newman, Rusty Wallace, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Kansas pole-winner Matt Kenseth and Jeremy Mayfield all within 112 points of the lead heading into Sunday's race, Stewart, who starts ninth Sunday, remains the guy to beat a fact that makes him smile.
''You want to be the guy that everybody's looking at,'' he said. ''If they're not looking at you, they're not worried about you. So you want them paying attention to what you're doing.
''You want them to feel like you're the one that they have to gauge off of. All that is is a huge compliment to your race team when you're in a situation like that.''
Kahne wins duel with Biffle; Truex widens points lead
KANSAS CITY, Kan. If Kasey Kahne tries something like the move that won him Saturday's Busch race in Sunday's Nextel Cup event, Greg Biffle vowed to make him pay for it.
Biffle elected not to nudge Kahne out of contention during their late side-by-side duel Saturday, and Kahne edged ahead just yards from the finish line for the victory at Kansas Speedway.
The margin of victory .03 seconds was the fifth-closest since the series implemented electronic timing in 1993.
''If this is the Cup race, that's the last lap and that's what going on, it's going to be a different outcome, I can tell you that,'' said Biffle, who led 136 of 200 laps and clearly had the fastest car in the United Way 300.
Kahne, who didn't find out until Thursday that he would drive Saturday's race for Evernham Motorsports, was unfazed.
''I doubt he'll sacrifice his Cup car tomorrow,'' Kahne said. ''He's got a lot riding on that, racing for points, and I doubt he wants to do that. If he wants to nudge, we can nudge, too.''
Points leader Martin Truex Jr., who started from the pole and led 36 laps, lost ground because of a decision to pit earlier than the rest of the field. He still finished ninth his first top-10 finish since Aug. 26 and widened his lead over Clint Bowyer from 26 to 49 points.
Bowyer was running fourth, four spots ahead of Truex, with nine laps to go on the 1 1/2-mile tri-oval. But he developed a loose wheel, had to pit, and finished 15th.
''We screwed up today, but we got lucky,'' said Truex, the defending series champion. ''We had a good car, but we can't get anything to go our way.''
Pit strategy paid off for Kahne, who earned his third career Busch victory and second of the season. He stayed out with 16 laps to go, electing to run on worn tires, while Biffle pitted and dropped to eighth.
Biffle charged back to second by the 194th lap, when Jason Leffler's car got loose and got into Mike Wallace, putting Wallace into the wall and bringing out the last of the day's 10 cautions. The green flag game out with three laps left, and Biffle took a slight lead into the final lap.
Kahne kept his Dodge on the outside, though, taking away the air on the right side of Biffle's Ford and squeezing Biffle toward the inside.
''You wouldn't see him doing that in the middle of the race,'' Biffle said. ''Eventually, the guy on the bottom is going to prevail. If we would have had three more laps, he wouldn't have been able to hang there.''
It paid off for Kahne on Saturday, though.
''I just played that out, and it seemed to work,'' he said. ''I've lost plenty of races when we've had one of the fastest cars, too.''
Johnny Sauter was third, followed in the top 10 by Kevin Harvick, Jon Wood, Reed Sorenson, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Truex and J.J. Yeley. Joe Nemechek, who swept the Busch and Nextel Cup races here last year, was 11th.
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