Tony Stewart in Victory Lane in Chicago. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
Just days ago, Tony Stewart called himself an underdog in the Chase for the Championship. Two weeks prior, he wondered aloud whether his No. 14 team even deserved a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs. On Monday, Stewart proved he’s no underdog — and he surely belongs in the company of title contenders — as the two-time Cup champion kicked off the Sprint Cup Series’ Chase by saving enough fuel to outlast the field in the GEICO 400 from Chicagoland Speedway.
Stewart, who co-owns the Chevrolet-backed Stewart-Haas Racing organization, entered the Chase in a four-way tie for last in the 12-driver field. However, his No. 14 team had shown encouraging signs of competitiveness since a head-scratching 28th-place run at Bristol on August 27, with a third at Atlanta and a seventh in last weekend’s regular season finale in Richmond.
“I’m not sure one weekend can do that,” Stewart said in reference to a change of outlook. “But I feel better about it, obviously. We’ve had three good weekends in a row. Today doesn’t change my mind, but the last three weeks definitely make me feel better about it.
“We’ve still got nine hard weeks to go. And we have some tracks that have been a struggle this year, so we’ve got a long way to go but this gets us off to the right start.”
Stewart’s No. 14 crew did not get off to a good start at Chicago. Although he said the car felt good in practice, they only qualified 26th. A methodical march through the field found him at the front after a restart with 62 laps remaining. But a long green-flag run over the event’s final 50 laps had every crew chief on pit road calculating fuel mileage to the last drop.
Stewart, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth swapped the lead numerous times over the final run, but when Truex pitted for fuel, Stewart only had to feather the throttle and hold a pretty wheel — even with Kevin Harvick in hot pursuit.
A number of Chase contenders — including Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch — ran out of gas on the last lap, while others — Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch — had just enough to bring it home.
As such, Harvick, Earnhardt, Edwards and Keselowski rounded out the top 5.
“I felt like we had saved a fair amount of gas under caution in the first 15, 18 laps, and (I) never really had to push my car very hard and just kind of maintained the pace that I was running,” Harvick said. “And as we got a couple of gaps we were able to shut it off five or six times. And when Gil said ‘Go,’ I guessed it about right, (because I) ran out off pit road there after we took the checkered flag. Good calculation by the guys and good solid day.”
Like Stewart, it was Harvick’s third consecutive top 10. He capped off the regular season with a win in last weekend’s Richmond race and entered the Chase tied for the No. 1 seed with Kyle Busch.
Harvick maintained the position with his second-place finish, and sits seven points in front of Stewart in the standings.
Denny Hamlin took the biggest points hit in the Chase. After squeaking in as a wild card entry, Hamlin’s day quickly deteriorated when he was forced to pit on lap 86 with a vibration, falling two laps off the pace. After earning one lap back, a shredded left front tire dropped last season’s Chase runner-up three laps off the pace. He finished 31st and finds himself 41 points out of the Chase lead — almost one full race worth of points.
The other Chasers finishes included Kurt Busch (sixth), Newman (eighth), Johnson (10th), Kenseth (21st), Kyle Busch (22nd) and Jeff Gordon (24th).
From the Spotter's Stand
In last year’s Windy City run, David Reutimann won his first Cup race without an asterisk while old man Jeff Gordon made the 600th Cup start of his career.
Reutimann seemed apologetic after stumbling into a rain-shortened 227-lap win at the Coca-Cola 600 in 2009. But no one could question the Tums 00 Toyota after a gut-wrenching race to beat Carl Edwards and Gordon to the line in a green-white-checker finish.
Jimmie Johnson led the opening 92 laps of the night. But uncharacteristic miscues led to a 25th-place finish. Expect the 48’s mistakes to be corrected, however, as the 1.5-mile tri-oval of Chicagoland Speedway will (inexplicably) host the first Chase race in 2011.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Negotiating a smooth entry into Chicago’s sweeping turns sets the car up for a good exit, which is where the passing is going to take place. Chicago is all about handling on the track’s surprisingly weathered surface. Racing at night normally increases grip on a cool track surface, but Chicago’s bumpy ride doesn’t guarantee that. It’s close to Kansas, but thanks to a back straight with a really gradual, almost unnoticeable curve, it’s unique in its own way. I don’t really think that curved back straight makes any difference at all in terms of setting the car up.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Jeff Gordon, with a win and seven top 10s in 10 Chi-Town starts. Pretty Solid Pick: Richmond winner Kevin Harvick, who won the first two races here. Good Sleeper Pick: Do not overlook Brian Vickers’ stats at Chicago. Runs on Seven Cylinders: You’d think this would be a Greg Biffle-type track, but it’s not. Insider Tip: We’re in the Chase now, so teams like the 48, 18, 24 and 99 will come to play.
Classic Moments at Chicagoland
Before Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon swapped pit crews at Texas last year, the most notable team swap in NASCAR came at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2005.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters the USG Sheetrock 400 mired at 16th in the point standings while his teammate, Michael Waltrip — and former crew — ranks 17th. Although Matt Kenseth thoroughly dominates the race, Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Hmiel, makes a gutsy two-tire call during the final caution period, giving the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy valuable track position. Junior holds off Kenseth in clean air over the final 13 laps to earn his only win of the campaign.
Following the race, Jeff Gordon gives Mike Bliss a black eye at the airport after the two tangled to bring out the final caution that set the table for Hmiel’s pit call.