Stewart clinches spot in Chase

THE SPORTS NETWORK

, Last Updated: 3:42 PM ET

HAMPTON, GA - Tony Stewart snapped a 31-race winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series by taking Sunday's Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Stewart led 176 of 325 laps, but the two-time NASCAR Cup champion had to pass Carl Edwards for the lead just after a restart with 25 laps remaining.

The eighth and final caution occurred on lap 303. Kasey Kahne made contact with Kurt Busch after he was hit from behind by Ryan Newman. Kahne, who won at Atlanta one year ago, cut a tire and shredded debris on the track. After the final restart with 18 laps to go, Stewart quickly pulled away and then held off Edwards by 1.3 seconds.

"The pit crew is who we have got to give all the credit to tonight," Stewart said. "They had an awesome pit stop the last time we came in that got us that track position that I lost on the previous restart. Without that, I don't think we would have a shot to be here tonight."

It was Stewart's 38th career victory in the series, but his first since October 2009 at Kansas.

"It's been a long time since we have been in victory lane," he said. "So it's something we are not used to. Luckily, we have had the good fortune to not normally go this long without a win."

Stewart also claimed his third win at Atlanta. His two other victories here came in March 2002 and October 2006.

Even though Edwards has not won a Cup race since the 2008 season-finale at Homestead, FL, he has been one of the hottest drivers on the series right now, finishing seventh or better in seven of the last eight races.

"I feel like we have scored a ton of points the last seven or eight races," Edwards said. "We have performed probably better in that stretch than we ever have, and it makes me really excited, and I'm really looking forward to the Chase. It's going to be fun."

Jimmie Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, bounced back with a third-place finish at Atlanta. It was Johnson's first top-10 run since August 1 at Pocono.

"I feel like we are going down the right path," said Johnson, who has made the Chase each year since the playoff format began in 2004. "I'm excited to clinch. I just don't want to go into Richmond and worry about racing my way through that and so that's a huge relief for myself and this team."

Jeff Burton finished fourth, while Kyle Busch bounced back from a pit-road speeding penalty and then a vibration issue to complete the top-five.

Kurt Busch, who won at Atlanta in March, took the sixth spot, followed by Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose.

Ten drivers have now qualified for the 12-driver field for the championship Chase, which begins in two weeks in New Hampshire.

Kyle Busch, Stewart, Edwards, Burton, Johnson, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, who finished 11th, and Denny Hamlin joined Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon. Harvick, the current points leader, locked down his spot at Michigan, while Gordon secured a position two weeks ago at Bristol.

Harvick suffered a vibration problem and retired late in the race with a 33rd- place finish.

Hamlin started on the pole and swapped the lead with Stewart several times in the early going. But Hamlin suffered engine failure midway through and wound up finishing 43rd. He dropped from fifth to 10th in points.

"I saw that [teammate Joey Logano] was off the pace, and it looked like he had engine problems, and usually where there is one, my team will find the other," Hamlin said. "We seem to find all the bad luck at Joe Gibbs Racing."

Just two spots are up for grabs in the Chase when the series concludes its 26- race regular season next Saturday at Richmond.

Greg Biffle and Bowyer remained 11th and 12th in points, respectively. Biffle was involved in a three-car crash on lap 152 and ended up finishing 80 laps down in 36th.

Bowyer now holds a comfortable 117-point lead over new 13th-place Newman. Jamie McMurray dropped one spot to 14th in points after finishing 15th. McMurray, who won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 earlier this year, trails Bowyer by 128 points.


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