Editorial

Stewart on the outside, looking in, as the Chase begins
by Pete McCole

September 10, 2006

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Tony Stewart
NASCAR

One year removed from his dominating run to the Nextel Cup title, two-time series champions Tony Stewart missed the cut for the 10-race Chase For The Nextel Cup, falling out of the top-10 in points in what will be the worst points finish of his career.

Stewart was eliminated from contention for the 2006 Nextel Cup after falling to 11th in points after a dismal finish in Saturday night’s Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond Int’l Raceway.

Starting in the rear of the field in a back-up car, Stewart and his team dug themselves into a hole too deep to climb out of, trying in vain to keep pace with Kasey Kahne in a bid for the tenth and final spot in the 10-race Chase field.

It was a surprising downfall for the defending series champion who led the standings for nine of the last ten races in last year’s title chase.

“This is proof of how tough this season is and how tough it is just to make this chase,” said Stewart. “It's a big letdown obviously, but at the same time, there's 10 guys that earned their way in there too. So, we've just got to wish those guys luck.”

Stewart’s troubles began with a 32nd-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway in July. He followed that up with a 37th-place showing the next week at New Hampshire Int’l Speedway, dropping him from seventh to 11th in points.

He managed to rebound back into the top five following the Michigan race on Aug. 20, but sub-par finishes in the next two races put Stewart on the bubble.

Coming into Saturday night’s race, Stewart was eighth in points, just 45 ahead of 11th-place Kasey Kahne.

Stewart’s team immediately found themselves in the hole when Stewart crashed his primary car during Friday’s practice session, putting Stewart in the rear of the field for the race.

Stewart struggled all night, but managed to stay on the lead lap. However his ill-handling car couldn’t claw its way far enough through the field to keep Stewart in the hunt.

Stewart ended up finishing 18th to fall to 11th in points, 16 points behind Kahne, who came home third.

“It takes 26 weeks to get to this point. We just missed it tonight,” Stewart said. “It's been an up and down year and the day we needed to be on, we just couldn't get on.

“We've still got 10 more races to go out and win and I wish the guys that made the top 10, good luck this year.”

Kahne will make his first start in the Chase, driving for the same team that put Jeremy Mayfield in the Chase the last two seasons.

“It's exciting to be in the Chase,” said Kahne “That was our goal when the season started and I'm really happy that we made it. We had to take our time early tonight. It's a relief to get in.

“I'm very surprised that Tony Stewart didn't make it in. I never would have thought he would be the one not to make it in.”

Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, first and second in points respectively coming into Saturday’s race, were already locked into the field for the Chase. Kenseth will lead the standings going into next weekend’s race at NHIS.

Kenseth, for one, was certain that Stewart would be one of the drivers chasing him for the title.

“I thought he was gonna be the guy to have to beat for the championship again for sure,” said Kenseth. “I didn't even really think of it until the race was over to be honest with you because when you think of Tony, you think of him winning championships and being in there.”

Saturday night’s race winner, Kevin Harvick, will start the Chase third in points ahead of Kyle Busch, making his first appearance in the Chase while Stewart’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin – the lone rookie in the field - will start fifth in the Chase

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. solidly made the Chase field after missing the cut last season, securing the sixth spot ahead of Mark Martin. Jeff Burton will take the eighth place in the field, joining Kevin Harvick to give RCR two cars in the Chase.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon will try for his fifth series title from the ninth-place points position.

Gordon missed the cut last year, marking the worst points finish of his career. He’ll start the Chase ninth in points.

“Once you experience what it's like not to be in it, it makes you appreciate it that much more and it sucked,” Gordon said. “It's not easy to get in. You have to fight every single weekend just like we had to fight tonight. We've had to fight a lot to get ourselves positioned into this Chase. We're in it and now we can breathe a little easier.

“I can absolutely sympathize with Tony. We experienced what that was like last year. It is a big surprise. You knew somebody was going to be in and somebody was going to be out. I would have never guessed that Tony Stewart wouldn't be in this Chase this year.”

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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