Last year, during the first race in the chase Tony Stewart gambled on fuel and lost, coasting to a 24th-place finish. This year, Stewart’s battle with fuel mileage was a success that earned him his first win of the season. Stewart took the lead four times for 35 laps, holding off point’s leader Kevin Harvick for the victory.
On Thursday at Chicagoland Speedway’s Chase media day, Stewart listed seven drivers capable of winning the championship, excluding himself from that list. Now, he is sitting second in points, only seven points behind the leader, Harvick. Coming into Chicagoland, Stewart was on a 32 race winless streak, being one of two drivers with no wins going into the Chase. With nine races left in the season, he has a third place finish, a seventh and a victory in the last three weeks.
Although Stewart hasn’t forgotten about the struggles he’s been through this season, he now feels better about being in the Chase. He said, “I feel better about it, obviously. One day doesn’t change the whole season. We’ve got nine more hard weeks, and we have some tracks that have been a struggle. But this gets us off to the right start.”
Is Earnhardt Still The Underdog?
If you were to go back to Richmond International Raceway and ask someone to choose a driver who won’t make the Chase, their response would most likely have been Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt came very close to winning at Martinsville Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, this season. He also posted eight Top-10 finishes in the first 14 races of the season. He climbed as high as third in points and was on the road to making the Chase for the first time in three years.
Right when he seemed to be heading in the right direction, his luck took a turn for the worst. In the final eleven races before the Chase, he only had one Top-10 finish, dropping him from third to ninth in standings. Earnhardt had to finish 20th or better at Richmond to make the Chase and he barely made it, finishing in 16th position.
In the first race of the Chase, the No. 88 team coasted to a third place finish, saving enough fuel to finish the race. With this third place finish, Earnhardt is now in fifth position in the championship standings. I now have to ask, is Earnhardt still an underdog? Granted, this is only the first race in the Chase, but gaining momentum with this finish is likely to fuel the fire and keep Dale Jr’s confidence up. I don’t think anybody should count out Junior as a championship contender. If anyone is going to try and prove themselves in the last nine races this season, it is Junior.
Hamlin and Gordon Struggle
Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon struggled from the drop of the green flag. Hamlin started 27th and fell off the lead lap early; he had to pit under green due to a vibration. Contact with Greg Biffle that cut his tire, and sent him to pit road, effectively ended his day. Gordon started 23rd, but by lap 40, he dropped to 29th. Less than 100 laps later, he was two laps down. With about 40 to go, Gordon managed to get back on the lead lap and was running 13th. It looked like he had recovered. Then, in one the final lap, Gordon ran out of fuel, finishing 24th.
Points Shake Up
Kevin Harvick is now your point’s leader. Stewart gained seven positions with his win and is now second. Carl Edwards gained two positions, finishing in fourth position. Kurt Busch moved up three positions with his sixth place finish. As previously stated, Earnhardt moved up five positions to fifth in standings after his third place finish. Brad Keselowski also moved up five positions with his fifth-place finish. Ryan Newman finished the race in eighth place, thus moving him up one position to sixth place.
Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Jeff Gordon round out your Top-12. Johnson finished the race in 10th, Busch in 22nd, Kenseth in 21st, and Gordon in 24th. Denny Hamlin is the only driver who remained in his point’s position, in 12th spot.
Stewart-Haas dominated the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July. Can they do it again? We will find out when we head back to Loudon on Sunday for the second race in the Chase.