Byline: Mike Mulhern JOURNAL REPORTER
ATLANTA -- Tony Stewart wins again, decisively, with a late pit-stop move -and it's all-but lost amid NASCAR's Nextel Cup championship hoopla and a "dirty-tricks" caution flag because some driver threw some debris on the track.
Because Stewart didn't make the Chase for the Nextel Cup, he can play it all a lot more loosely than the 10 struggling contenders.
So Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief, called it "a fun weekend. The pressure was off because we unloaded so good. The pit stops were awesome. And it was a great job by Tony keeping track of the tire wear and protecting track position."
The caution flag in the final minutes of the Bass Pro Shops 500 raised some hackles, but Stewart, the defending series champ, and current leader Matt Kenseth both dismissed the issue with barely a shrug of the shoulders.
Some driver -NASCAR officials said that the TV replay video was "inconclusive" - deliberately threw a piece of foam-rubber roll-bar padding onto the track to bring out a crucial caution flag.
Jeff Burton was a big loser as a result, and he called for major penalties from NASCAR, a 185-point deduction and a $100,000 fine for the incident, which he said altered the outcome of the race.
There is no shortage of suspects. The caution came on lap 292 of the 325-lap race, "and we were all going to have to stop at 25 (laps) to go and take tires and fuel," Zipadelli said.
Stewart said: "Well, it's better than them throwing lead out, I guess. At least if you hit it it's not going to hurt anything. That's not unheard of. There has been roll-bar padding laying on tracks for probably 50 years now. That's a quick way to get a caution."
Kenseth was little less forgiving.
"I don't know," he said. "I know what would be done if I threw it out. The caution I guess worked out OK for me, but it got Jeff Burton I know.
"I saw a piece of roll-bar padding laying in the middle of the backstretch. But I don't know who threw it. That's the last thing I want to worry about."
Burton's eventful night turned sour when a right-rear tire came apart midway through.
"It blew all the rubber off the right-rear, and the thing wouldn't handle at all and we lost all of our track position," Burton said. "We put another set of tires on it, and it drove great."
But in his haste to catch back up, "I drove it in the wall, cut a tire and got us behind again."
And that set up the green-flag pit stop that put him two laps down heading into the stretch.
Jimmie Johnson considered the big picture and said that if everyone's points were suddenly reset to zero for the final three races, "there are more than 10 teams capable of winning the championship. There are 15 or 20 cars capable of winning a race in the championship."
However, Johnson said that putting 10 men in the Chase is enough.
"There's got to be a number. And if you ask Tony, he wouldn't have been in a position to win the championship anyway, on the old points system," Johnson said. "I've been lucky enough to be in the Chase, so it's easy for me to say there should only be 10 cars. But 10 cars is more than fair."
And Stewart said thanks, but no thanks, to being added to the Chase.
"We aren't in the Chase, so it doesn't matter," he said. "We knew it wasn't the end of the world. We were obviously devastated, but the season we had, the adversity we overcame, just to be in position to race to the Chase was a pretty big accomplishment.
"After Richmond (Sept. 9), we weren't in the Chase, and the focus changed. If we were in the Chase, we would not have been able to do what we did at Kansas City (gamble on fuel, to pull out a win three weeks ago).
"The guys racing for the championship, there is a lot of pressure on those guys. Sometimes it gets you off your game a little bit, sometimes it forces you to be a little more conservative, and sometimes because of the pressure you make mistakes.
"Those guys are in a totally different situation than we are. It is easier for us to just go out and try to win races."
Stewart said that it's fun, for a change, just to race without worrying about the championship.
"It's nice you don't have to worry about points," he said. "I didn't worry about anybody but ourselves.It takes pressure off us and lets us go back to doing what we do best - trying to win races."
C6: Tony Stewart waved the checkered flag for the Atlanta fans after his fourth win of the Nextel Cup season.