INDIANAPOLIS – A little time away from racing helped Tony Stewart come away from the Brickyard with another huge victory.
The two-time Cup champion had a frustrating start to the 2007 season, losing at least four races he should have won. He didn't reach Victory Lane until the July 15 event in Chicago.
Stewart then took his momentum with him on an overdue vacation during NASCAR's final off weekend of the season before reporting to Indianapolis on Friday relaxed and ready to try for his second Indy win in three seasons.
"We got to do fun stuff (on vacation)," he said. "When you get to do fun stuff, when you come off a week like that, you are pumped up for what for me is my biggest race of the year. The moon and the stars lined up."
He beat buddy Kevin Harvick on Sunday in a classic dual to the finish and showed he's now mastered the track that caused him a decade of heartache and once even threatened his career.
"This kid is — he's matured so much," said crew chief Greg Zipadelli said. "He drove a phenomenal race today. I'm proud of him."
Stewart led a race-high 66 of the 160 laps and, even when he was passed by 2003 winner Harvick on a restart with 20 to go, Stewart remained confident and in control.
He chased down Harvick, even taunting his friend over the radio. "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty," he called. "Come get you some of this."
The two-time series champion caught Harvick in the duel of Chevrolets and made at least two attempts to pass. Harvick held on.
Stewart finally powered alongside with 10 laps to go, but Harvick wouldn't relent and the cars ground together as they drag-raced around the narrow oval.
Stewart surged into the lead, then seemingly put his orange No. 20 on cruise control for the final 25 miles. With six to go, his in-car camera caught him casually drinking from a water bottle with no hands on his steering wheel as he headed down the straightaway at more than 200 miles per hour.
"I just went down there on the restart and got real, real tight for some reason," Stewart said. "Kevin got by us and I knew after 15 laps I could get around him. So I was just trying to be patient, got a good run on him off of (Turn) 1 and got by him.
"That's a hard guy to race there. He's a clean guy. That's one of my best friends."
Stewart joyously celebrated the win, pumping his fist through the window as he crossed the finish line. After a brief victory lap, he stopped his car on the Yard of Bricks, was embraced by his father, Nelson, and his Joe Gibbs Racing crew. The team then joined him for his celebratory fence climb.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the 2000 Indianapolis 500 in his only appearance, chased down Harvick to finish second — his best showing on an oval since leaving Formula One last summer.
"I don't think anyone had anything for Tony," Montoya said. "His car was way too fast. But second here at the Brickyard, it was awesome."
Jeff Gordon, the series points leader and four-time Brickyard winner, was third followed by Kyle Busch, pole-sitter Reed Sorenson and Mark Martin.
Harvick faded all the way to seventh after Stewart's race-winning pass.
"It was just good racing until I got the left front fender saved in," Harvick said. "He didn't quite give us enough room."
The victory made Stewart the favorite for a third title. Six of the past nine Indy winners went on to win the Cup, including the last two, and Stewart himself did it in 2005.
"I don't know about that," Stewart said. "There's still a lot of racing to go. There's no guarantees. But it's neat knowing the last two guys that have won this race (Jimmie Johnson in 2006 and Stewart) have won the championship.
"I wouldn't mortgage my house on it — yet," he added playfully.
Now Stewart appears poised to rip off one of his trademark winning streaks. He won five of six races during the summer of 2005, closed last year with three wins in the final eight, and now has two in a row.
The race was not so kind to Jimmie Johnson, the defending race winner and Cup champion, or Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Johnson, who ended his own personal streak of poor performance at Indy by winning here last year, recovered from an early wreck only to slam into the wall when his tire erupted midway through the race. He had to frantically climb from his car as flames shot inside the cockpit.
"It's feast or famine here for us," Johnson said. "I'm OK. The impact wasn't bad. The flames had me nervous there inside the car and I lost some eyelashes and the side of my face got pretty hot."
Earnhardt led 33 laps early and appeared to be the only car capable of running with Stewart. But his handling eventually faded, and he dropped back to fifth place. That's where he was running when his motor failed, and Earnhardt wound up 34th.
It was a setback in his bid to make the Chase for the championship — he's fighting for the 12th and final qualifying spot, and is now locked into a tight battle with Kurt Busch, who finished 11th.