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Saturday is halfway for the Chase

 This Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 from Lowe’s Motor Speedway marks the halfway mark in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Of all the top 12 Chase contenders this season, one of them has a little more on his plate than the rest. Tony Stewart co-owns Stewart-Haas Racing and also drives the No. 14 Chevrolet and has been able to do both while competing for this season’s championship.

If any driver has a gripe about the current Chase format of deciding the year’s champion, it is Tony Stewart.  He came into the Chase for the Sprint Cup portion of the season with a more than 200 point lead in the points standings — a lead he held for much of the first 26 races of the season.  In spite of a win the weekend before last at Kansas, Stewart heads to Lowe’s Motor Speedway Saturday night in fourth place in the standings, 84 points behind points leader Jimmie Johnson.  Stewart has posted four wins, 15 top fives, and 21 top ten finishes in his first season as an owner/driver with the help of his crew chief Darian Grubb.
“We knew going into the Chase it was a must win situation,” Grubb said when speaking with  media representatives at last weekend’s Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway in California. “You’re going to have to win races against these competitors.”
“We were still just learning each other going into California in the spring,” Stewart said.  ”We’ve had time to make mistakes and make decisions that worked for me, and that’s something that will help us definitely down the stretch.”  
Slow starts in racing can lead to finishing last. This season Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon started off slow in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings, but have spent the last four weeks building momentum and climbing back into contention.  
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon finished second at Kansas and followed up with another second place finish last weekend at California to move into fifth place, 105 behind points leader and teammate Jimmie Johnson.  Gordon has posted one win at Texas and has 14 top fives this season; consistency is what it is all about in points racing and Gordon is tied with Stewart for a series-leading 21 top ten finishes.
“Right now, we’ve got to focus on our team, our program, and our finishes,” Gordon said. “We got a little bit behind in new Hampshire, and now we’ve got to make sure that’s the worst finish that we have in the Chase.  That’s the only chance that we have, and that’s asking a lot, but that’s now our goal.  It’s the position we put ourselves in.”
Gregg Biffle has had the tallest ladder to climb this season, after being seeded 12th coming into the Chase.  He has been climbing in the standings and heads to Charlotte this weekend in seventh place, 188 points out of the points lead. In the first four races of the Chase, Biffle has finished in the top 10 twice.
“We’re sure excited to be running good again and especially to some of the tracks we like,” he said.  “I’m having the time of my life, I know that.”
Going into Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte, the man they’re all trying to catch is three-time and defending Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson who is going for an unprecedented four consecutive Cup Championships.  Johnson served notice that that he is once again going to be the man to beat by winning his second race of the Chase last Sunday at California.  With the win Sunday, Johnson retook the lead points lead from everyone’s sentimental favorite, Mark Martin.  Johnson leads Martin by 12 points.  Martin and Johnson are now tied for the most wins this season with five victories apiece
But don’t be fooled,  as much as everybody loves senior driver Mark Martin, the rest of the drivers are not about to just let Martin walk off with the championship.  A total of 190 points separate first place to 11th in the Chase standings, and only 105 points separate the top five places, the closest point margin since the inception of the Chase format in 2004.

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