Stewart Fishing For A Title

Tony Stewart has no intention of spending this week trying to build a rocket ship or reinventing the wheel. He's going to cut some commercials for his sponsor, then herd his team onto a couple of yachts and do some fishing. Why not? The season finale is at Homestead-Miami Speedway is just a few casts from the Florida Keys anglers have long been drawn to.

Stewart's plan for the days leading up to Sunday's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup championship race actually sticks pretty close to the season-long blueprint that has him atop the rankings: Go fast in practice, qualify well, lead some laps and win the race.

"I know it sounds crazy," says Stewart, knowing it actually sounds anything but. "But that's really what we're going to do."

Which puts Stewart in a league of his own as the countdown to green continues.

Jimmie Johnson? Faced with the prospect of finishing second in the rankings for the third consecutive year, Johnson has wrapped a cloak of calmness around himself so tight he sometimes appears comatose.

"If a pitcher in the final game of the World Series (is) standing on the mound sweating bullets, you sense a mistake coming," says Johnson who, come to think of it, would make a perfect pitchman for that product that doesn't allow others to see you perspire. "When you see somebody calm and relaxed, you know he's in control. That comes from experience."

You take a guy like (third-ranked) Carl Edwards, Johnson adds, and you see something very different. "A guy like (Carl) feels some extra pressure. (His) mind is doing different things."

Which might account for Edwards' famous grin seeming to dim a little down the homestretch, despite back-to-back Chase victories at Atlanta and Texas in what is essentially his rookie season. Contending for a title during your first full year on the circuit tends to make a driver grind his teeth.

Then there's fourth-ranked Greg Biffle, who at age 35 led the standings for the first time in his career following a 2004 season that saw him finish ranked 17th. Like Stewart, Biffle is a five-race winner. Unlike Stewart, his mindset entering the Ford 400 is somewhat scrambled.

"We wanted to win, but we came and led a lot of laps and ran real strong and finished second. This is what we need to do. It's championship form right here," Biffle said after his runner-up finish at Phoenix. Then added in the same breath of his chances to clinch the title: "We're certainly not in it anymore."

While Johnson, Edwards and Biffle have a legitimate - if somewhat limited - shot at keeping Stewart from collecting his second series crown, those ranked fifth through ninth will duke it out for positions where the difference in paychecks is calculated in the millions.

As for the final Chase spot, that's been reserved for reigning series champion Kurt Busch, who is assured of finishing 10th even if he doesn't come within a hundred miles of the track and instead spends the day doing something weird. Like going fishing.

Actually, Busch getting booted from the title chase after being cited for reckless driving two days prior to the Phoenix race isn't cause for laughter. Judging from the comments out of the Roush camp ("This is the last straw" and "We're officially retiring as Kurt Busch's apologists"), one might get the idea there weren't too many hearts broken - other than those of the Busch clan - at the notion of sidelining for two races a driver who basically jumped ship two-thirds of the way through the season. Signing with Roger Penske for the 2007 season while in the midst of his 2005 campaign with Roush while actually hoping to be released for 2006 isn't the best way to win friends and influence your teammates.

While he is innocent until proven guilty, which will be determined at a court hearing Dec. 22 in Phoenix, Kurt riled up a host of people, including a deputy sheriff who maintains he was verbally abused after pulling (Busch) over for allegedly running a stop sign. While the deputy said he smelled alcohol, Kurt insisted his actions weren't alcohol-related, and he apologized for being rude.

Kyle Busch, meanwhile, was hearing the same conflicting reports from the Maricopa sheriff's department as everyone else. The first said Kurt refused to complete the field sobriety test. The second that Kurt passed the field test, but was taken to a sheriff's office at the track for yet another test. The machine at the track reportedly was broken, thus there were no alcohol-related charges filed.

No matter, said race winner Kyle. Everyone knows that "usually things in the media are false," a statement he later tried to soften by noting, "there is a lot of speculation out there in the media."

This is the same media responsible for Monday's headlines declaring Kyle a two-time winner this season. Gee, I hope the media got that right.

Hey, it's been a long - and often contentious - year, jam packed with 36 races. Perhaps a two-month break is just the ticket for clearing up any lingering confusion. And then it's back to the Florida beach for February's season-opening Daytona 500.

Bring your fishing pole.

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