Tony Stewart is a safe distance from all the pressure.
He does not have to look over his shoulder and get anxious when another championship contender suddenly appears on his back bumper. He can just drive while others sweat.
Stewart, the defending Nascar Nextel Cup champion, won Sunday's Bass Pro Shops 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway with a smooth run over the last 45 laps. He knows he has an advantage over the 10 drivers who are in the Chase for the Nextel Cup because he is not involved in this year's playoff.
''It takes the pressure off of us and lets us go back to what we do best and that's going out to win races,'' Stewart said. ''There is a lot of pressure, sometimes it gets you off your game a little bit. Those guys are singling out who is closest to them and what they've got to do to go to Homestead to try and win the Cup.''
When the Chase started seven races ago, Stewart was 11th in the points and did not qualify for Nascar's version of the postseason. He was a decoy Sunday to all the story lines that really matter with three races remaining, at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead in South Florida.
Matt Kenseth, who had terrible times in practice Saturday, did not lead a lap of the 325-lap race, and clings to a 26-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the standings.
Johnson, whose car was not fit for the top 10 while the sun was beating down on Atlanta Motor Speedway, rallied for a second-place finish when the track cooled. He moved to second from third in the Chase, shaving 15 points from Kenseth's lead.
The rookie Denny Hamlin, who also did not lead a lap, was out of the top 10 for most of the race, but he finished eighth after a pit stop for two tires when most others took four tires. The gamble helped keep him in the race for the championship, 65 points behind Kenseth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., snookered out of a late pit stop that cost him fresh tires and a run at Stewart for the victory, kept himself together for a third-place finish. He is tied for fourth in the points with Jeff Burton, 84 points behind Kenseth.
Kenseth, who finished fourth when he was edged out at the finish line in a battle for third by Earnhardt, said winning the Cup sometimes meant stepping over a contender who had stumbled.
''Other people's troubles have put us in the points lead,'' said Kenseth, the 2003 champion.
Hamlin almost seems surprised he is still in the Chase. ''We're finishing better than we're running,'' he said.
The big winner Sunday was Johnson. Just four weeks ago he was eighth in the points, 156 points behind Burton, the leader at the time.
Johnson has two second-place finishes and a victory in the last three races. He is trying to win his first championship after being the runner-up in 2003 and 2004.
''We got off to a rough start, but we had the speed in the car and now we're getting the results,'' Johnson said. ''It was a fun race. You really had to challenge yourself and scare yourself on every lap. We're on a great roll right now.''
Earnhardt could have been on a nice roll, too, if he had ducked in for four tires 18 laps from the finish with the rest of the race leaders.
When the pits were opened after a caution flag came out, Stewart, who was leading, waited before making a sudden swerve down pit road.
Most of the race leaders followed; Johnson, who was running second, just barely made it in. Earnhardt was too far up the track to pit and was left out.
''I was not in any position to pit,'' Earnhardt said. ''They were doing everything, swapping, and juking, and carrying on, I just kind of got left out there.''
Earnhardt held off Kenseth to take third, but if the Chase is close at Homestead, he may lament the points he lost by not getting tires.
The driver who took the biggest hit was Kasey Kahne, who was eighth in the standings before the race. On Lap 249, while running fourth, he turned up the track coming into Turn 1 and ran into the side of David Stremme's car.
''It was a matter of time before we were going to be leading that thing,'' Kahne said. ''Driver error.''
Kahne finished the race 38th and is ninth, 210 behind Kenseth.
A wreck probably ended the championship hopes of Mark Martin. Martin, 47, in his last full season of Cup racing, finished 36th and is eighth, 201 points behind Kenseth.
Photo: Tony Stewart, the defending Nextel Cup champion, leading Jimmie Johnson on the way to his victory. (Photo by Robert LeSieur/Reuters)