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Smoke, Junior go from cellar dwellers to contenders

Two of NASCAR’s most talked about drivers, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., entered the Chase for the Sprint Cup with little discussion and mostly after thoughts. They were the only two Chase drivers without a win and were seeded ninth and 10th in the 12 driver Chase. Per this season’s Chase rules the 11th and 12th seeds went to the two wild card entries.

Despite a top-10 regular season finish, there were stretches where both Stewart (a

two-time series champion) and Earnhardt (eight-time Most Popular Driver) looked like they would not make this year’s Chase field. It was just a few weeks ago that Stewart made remarks advising it really did not matter whether they managed to squeak into the Chase field or not because the way they had been running, they were just wasting a Chase slot.

But they didn’t miss this year’s field, and now after the rain-delayed Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, both seem like legitimate championship threats.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last top-five finish came in early June, more tahn three months ago. Entering the Chase, seven of his previous nine finishes were outside the top 20. As they ran in Richmond there were laps where Earnhardt held just a three-point advantage over 11th. The possibility of missing the Chase altogether was very real.

His third place finish at Chicagoland surprised many. It was his best finish since 2004, when he also started with a third place finish. He finished the season fifth in points. Following the first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway, Earnhardt had jumped from 10th place to fifth place, just 13 points off the lead.

Tony Stewart had never won the opening Chase race, but successful starts are the norm for Smoke. In four of the seven previous Chases, Stewart finished in the top 10. In three he finished in the top three, including runner-up in 2005, his second Championship season. His win a week ago Monday at Chicagoland, his third win at the track, catapulted him from ninth to second place in the points standings. He left Chicago just 7 points behind leader Kevin Harvick.

Stewart now has at least one victory in 13 consecutive seasons. Richard Petty has the record for the most consecutive seasons with a win, at 18. Stewart is the 16th different winner so far this season, the most through 27 races since 2003, and three short of the all-time record of 19.

How important is a strong start in the Chase? It depends on the driver. Only one eventual champion won the first Chase race, Kurt Busch in 2004. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished 39th in the Chase opener in 2006 and 25th in last season’s first Chase race, went on to win the championship both years.

This season the Chase is off to a bit of a unique start due to the number of drivers who ran out of gas near the end of the Chicago race. A look at the number of positions gained or lost after Chicago reveals some dramatic changes.

 Four drivers lost positions: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon. Johnson finished 10th and dropped to eighth in the standings. Kyle Busch dropped to ninth by virtue of a disappointing 22nd place finish. Matt Kenseth, with an empty gas tank and an illegal push from J.J. Yeley, was credited with 21st place and dropped to 10th place in the standings. Jeff Gordon, with an empty gas tank and a disappointing 24th place finish, has dropped to 11th place.

Sunday at New Hampshire, Stewart made it two in a row when he won another gas mileage race to take the points lead. After running among the leaders much of the afternoon, Stewart found himself running second behind Clint Bowyer in the late stages of the race. Unable to close up on Bowyer, it looked like Stewart was headed for a very respectable second place finish, when with just two laps to go Bowyer suddenly slowed and dropped to the apron, out of gas. Stewart, himself driving on fumes, cruised to his second straight win.

The ironic part was that Clint Bowyer won last fall’s race at New Hampshire when Stewart ran out of gas in the final laps. Dale Jr. ran up front most of last Sunday, but had to settle for a 19th place finish after blowing a tire in the final laps, dropping him three positions to eighth place.

You may contact Pete Barber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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