Head Games

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Well, the head games have started in the "Chase for the NEXTEL Cup."

Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, was on the radio during and after practice on Saturday at Martinsville, and he was saying some interesting stuff, at least in the opinion of the other driver with 5,777 points entering the night-Tony Stewart.

What was said is irrelevant; words have never won a race, as far as I can tell. It's the fact that something a crew chief says on his team's radio net can be used by the other side as "bulletin-board material" for the race the next day.

Stewart's team, as is the custom in the Cup garage, monitors their chief competitors' radio frequencies during practices and the race, and they heard every word that Knaus said. Knaus, whether he was giving a pep talk or trying to psyche out the competition a little, didn't do anything wrong.

Nor did Stewart do anything wrong when he called Knaus on the radio games during Sunday morning's pre-race show.

What's interesting is, Stewart and Johnson were racing for second place behind Jeff Gordon in the waning laps of Sunday's Subway 500 and Stewart refused to let Johnson get down to the bottom lane heading into Turn 1. Stewart applied the Jeff Gordon technique-get a fender inside and keep your foot in it-for making a difficult pass, and as Johnson dived for the bottom lane, he encountered Stewart's right front fender.

Johnson wiggled and chased his car up the track, losing second spot to Stewart. It's not like Johnson can complain about the move being low-rent, because his boss used it on Kurt Busch at Martinsville in April and he sent Busch to the fence.

Stewart, no matter how much he might have wanted to, did not send Johnson to the fence, even though he could have very easily. He didn't even move him, just let him rub on the right front and get loose.

The pass, which was worth five points to Stewart, could be a very important moment in this year's Chase. Johnson failed to lead a lap all day, while Stewart led 283, most of any driver, so that earned Stewart another 10 points.

Wouldn't it be a gas to have the Championship battle between the two come down to Homestead, and the difference be the five points for second place at Martinsville? There's too much racing left to begin speculating on who the favorite is, and what fate might befall a Chaser before next week's race at Texas.

Stewart, who used to mess with rivals' heads when he was in open-wheel racing, said the rather juvenile effort to "get inside [my] head" didn't work, and in fact, it made him and his Home Depot team all the more ready to stick out their collective tongues at Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Racing and Penske South Racing.

Whatever it leads to regarding the Chase, keep the tape handy of Stewart's pass of Johnson for second place. It just might be all the explanation you need as to how Stewart won his second title in 2005.

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