MARTINSVILLE, Virginia - Tony Stewart hadn't won a race all season and didn't list himself as a championship contender when asked to handicap the field before NASCAR's 10-race playoffs got going.
Now, his third championship is there for the taking.
"We've had one of those up-and-down years and we're having a run in this Chase and now we're hungry," Stewart said after his third victory in the first seven Chase races moved him within eight points of leader Carl Edwards. "We're hungry for this. I feel like our mindset into these next three weeks, we've been nice all year to a lot of guys, given guys a lot of breaks.
"We're cashing tickets in these next three weeks."
Stewart won this one by passing Jimmie Johnson on a restart with three laps to go Sunday.
Stewart then playfully called out Edwards.
"He better be worried. That's all I've got to say," Stewart said in Victory Lane, a broad smile spreading across his face. "He's not going to sleep for the next three weeks."
Stewart moved from 19 points behind leader Edwards and in fourth place to just eight points behind in second as several contenders got caught up in a season-high 18 caution flags.
Even Stewart had trouble, at one point having to apologize to race leader Denny Hamlin for racing him hard to stay on the lead lap. And that was with less than 200 laps to go.
"I was pretty mad all day, but I was the only guy who didn't get in a wreck with somebody, so I was kind of proud of that," Stewart said, adding that crew chief Darian Grubber, his spotter and several team members told him before the race to stop being so nice on the track.
The winning pass, to Johnson's outside, surprised even him.
"I don't think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside," he said, crediting Grubb for making the right calls and adjustments all race long. "I don't think we had the best race car today, by any means, but we had the most determined pit crew."
Johnson, for much of the day, looked like he might be the one making a huge gain in the points race, especially as Edwards floundered in the mid-20s and wasn't getting any better.
The cautions, which slowed things for 108 laps, also a season high, allowed Johnson to weather a call by crew chief Chad Knaus to stay out when all the leaders behind him pitted for fresh tires with just over 40 laps to go.
But he couldn't hold on with Stewart pressing him at the end.
"I just could not get away from him on the restart," he said, adding that he tried to be cognizant of Stewart's better position in the championship battle. "I thought about going in there and leaning on him, move him up, but that is just not the right thing to do."
Stewart last won the championship in 2005.
Edwards laughed when told about Stewart's challenge.
"He's wound up. He won the race. We'll see what happens at Texas," Edwards said. "I told you guys I thought he was one of the guys that could win this race and be a guy that you'd have to beat for the championship and I think he's proving that right now. But yeah, we'll have fun.
"We'll go race hard. They're going to have to race us, too. I'm excited about the next three races."
Edwards struggled all day, twice needing the get a free pass as the first car a lap down. He made it pay off the second time, adjusting his car and rallying to finish an unlikely ninth.
"That's just a gift," he said. "We did not deserve to finish ninth."
Given his history at Martinsville, where he has struggled, Edwards felt like he'd won.
"I had become OK with the fact that we were probably going to finish 20th or 25th," he said. "I was thinking already about Texas and how we were going to have to go there and everything we were going to do, but my guys stuck with it and we got very, very fortunate."
Others deserved much better than what they got, namely Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski.
They started the day second and third in points, and both were running near the front all day until getting caught up in late accidents. Kenseth finished 31st and Keselowski wound up 17th.
It seemed especially harsh for Kenseth, who was doing uncharacteristically well for him on the 0.526-mile oval until tangling with Kyle Busch on lap 464. Kenseth wound up in the garage.
"That ruined my day, along with his and whoever else got unfortunately collected in that mess," Kenseth said about Busch, who also ran up front all day but limped home in 27th place.
Kenseth was running eighth when he crashed. Keselowski also was running eighth.
Jeff Gordon finished third, and saw plenty of mayhem all race long.
"That was crazy. The racing was crazy," he said.
Kevin Harvick finished fourth and moved into third in the points race, 21 behind Edwards. Hamlin was fourth, followed by Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr.
Johnson, who started the day seventh in points, moved into sixth with his second-place run, but is still 43 points off the lead in search of his sixth consecutive championship.