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Stewart making moves before Phoenix race

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Tony Stewart climbed two spots to eighth in this week’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase standings, but it might be a case of too little, too late.

The Columbus native is 80 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson going into Sunday’s penultimate race, the Advocare 500 at Phoenix. Stewart is mathematically alive but a long shot to defend his championship.

Wherever he finishes in this year’s Chase, Stewart can look back at Sunday’s fifth-place finish at Texas as a highlight in an up-and-down season. Sitting in 13th place with 59 laps remaining, he twice gained three spots on pit stops, then picked up two more before the race was over.

“What an awesome, awesome comeback,” Stewart said in a news release. “I know a fifth-place run isn’t normally something to celebrate, but the setup we ran in the car was something that, with 30 minutes to go in happy hour yesterday, we tried. The car wasn’t handling very well, and I just asked (crew chief) Steve Addington, I said, ‘Listen, even if it’s a big step backward, I want to try to make a big step forward.’

“We took almost until the last three minutes of practice; we got back on the racetrack and got six laps on this setup with this package,” he said. “And then all day Steve just kept tweaking on it and working on it, and we threw a lot of big things at it to get it nice. But at the end, that was the best the car had been.

“I’m so proud of the effort of him and the crew yesterday and the pit crew today. Those last two stops they did were money. They really, really stepped it up. Probably the happiest I’ve ever been to run fifth in a long time.”

This weekend, Stewart is returning to the site of some of his biggest accomplishments as a racecar driver. In his first race there in 1993, he finished second in the Copper World Classic, the season opener for USAC’s Silver Crown Division. He won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race there in 1999 and, last November, finished third at Phoenix to put him in position to claim the title in the final race.

“When we ran the USAC cars out there, it was pretty cool because I had never gone that fast before,” Stewart said. “It’s just one of those tracks where, to run a Midget and a Silver Crown car there, it definitely got your attention. It was pretty fast.

“I’ve logged a bunch of laps there,” he said. “To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix, I guess you could say it’s the place where my career came full-circle.”

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