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Stewart Dominates Brickyard, Takes Checkered flag

The first gave him peace. The second was pure joy.

Stewart scored his second victory in three years at the Brickyard on Sunday, beating buddy Kevin Harvick in a classic dual to the finish. Stewart showed he's now mastered the track that caused him a decade of heartache and once even threatened his career.

"I'll enjoy this one more than the first one," he said. "The first one (in 2005) was like taking the weight of the world off your shoulders. When you grow up 45 miles from here, and driving down 16th and Georgetown in a wrecker and thinking `Man, what it would feel like to be 150 yards inside that fence running 200 mph?'

"I got to come here in stock car and win, that was such a weight off our shoulders ... everyone knew how much. Today, it's like we're happy now. It wasn't like it was the untouchable anymore."

The kid from Columbus came to Indy with his father as a child, dreaming of someday winning an Indianapolis 500. But his shrine was also his demon, and the track taunted him with heartbreaking near-misses.

It made his 2005 breakthrough victory a tense but electric affair.

This time he made it look downright easy.

Stewart led a race-high 66 of the 160 laps, but was passed by 2003 race winner Harvick on a restart with 20 to go. But with one Indy win already on his resume, Stewart didn't feel as if his world would end if he didn't regain the lead.

"I just went down there on the restart and got real, real tight for some reason," Stewart said. "Kevin got by us and I knew after 15 laps I could get around him. So I was just trying to be patient,

He never panicked as he chased down Harvick, even taunting his friend over the radio.

"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty," he called. "Come get you some of this."
The two-time series champion closed onto Harvick's bumper and made at least two attempts to pass, only to be rebuffed as Harvick held tight. Stewart finally powered alongside of him with 10 to go, but Harvick wouldn't relent and the two Chevrolets touched as they drag-raced around the historic 2½-mile oval.

"That's a hard guy to race there. He's a clean guy. That's one of my best friends," Stewart said, calling the contact between the two cars his mistake.

"Would I, with 10 laps to go, crash somebody just to win the Brickyard? No. It's not worth it. If I would have done it the wrong way, it would have ruined winning."

The pass completed, Stewart held steady and cruised the final 25 miles. With six to go, his in-car camera caught him casually drinking from a water bottle with no hands on his steering wheel as he headed down the straightaway at more than 200 miles per hour.

He frantically pumped his fist through the window as he crossed the finish line, turned a brief victory lap, then stopped his car on the Yard of Bricks. He was embraced their by family and his Joe Gibbs Racing crew, which joined him for his celebratory fence climb.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the 2000 Indianapolis 500 in his only appearance, chased down Harvick to finish second - his best showing on an oval since leaving Formula One last summer.

"I don't think anyone had anything for Tony," Montoya said. "His car was way too fast. But second here at the Brickyard, it was awesome."

Jeff Gordon, the series points leader and four-time Brickyard winner, was third followed by Kyle Busch, pole-sitter Reed Sorenson and Mark Martin.

Harvick faded all the way to seventh after Stewart's race-winning pass.

Jeff Burton, Dave Blaney and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 10.

The victory made Stewart the favorite to win the Nextel Cup title this season -- six of the past nine Indy winners went on to win the Cup, including the last two.

Stewart himself did it in 2005.

"It's neat knowing the last two guys who won this race won the championship," he said. "Am I going to be upset about that fact? Absolutely not. Am I going to be excited? You betcha.

"But does that mean it's a shoo-in? I wouldn't mortgage my house on it. Yet."

Stewart might be ready to rip off one of his trademark winning streaks, which would position him for a solid start to the Chase for the championship. He won five of six races during the summer of 2005, closed last year with three wins in the final eight, and now has two in a row.

It's turned around what started as a frustrating season for Stewart, who lost at least four races he should have won. He didn't reach Victory Lane until July 15 in Chicago. He took his momentum with him on an overdue vacation during NASCAR's final off weekend of the season, then reported to Indianapolis relaxed and ready.

"We got to do fun stuff (on vacation)," he said. "When you get to do fun stuff, when you come off a week like that, you are pumped up for what for me is my biggest race of the year. The moon and the stars lined up."

It's a marked change from his earlier visits to the track, when Stewart would arrive irritable and on edge in his pursuit of the elusive victory. He had his heart broken over and over, including a 2002 near-miss that devastated him.

In his anger after exiting the car, he punched a photographer and had to beg boss Joe Gibbs not to fire him.

His desire to kiss the bricks never faded, and now he's done it twice.

The race was not so kind to Jimmie Johnson, the defending race winner and Cup champion, or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Johnson, who ended his own personal streak of poor performance by winning here last season, recovered from an early wreck only to slam into the wall when his tire erupted midway through the race. He had to frantically climb from his burning car as flames shot inside the cockpit.

"It's feast or famine here for us," Johnson said. "I'm OK. The impact wasn't bad. The flames had me nervous there inside the car and I lost some eyelashes and the side of my face got pretty hot."

Earnhardt led 33 laps early and appeared to be the only car capable of running with Stewart. But his handling eventually faded, and he dropped back to fifth place. That's where he was running when his motor failed, and Earnhardt wound up 34th.

It was a setback in his bid to make the Chase for the championship -- he's fighting for the 12th and final qualifying spot, and is now locked into a tight battle with Kurt Busch, who finished 11th.

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

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