Stewart within sight of Chase leaders

Published 3:32 pm Friday, September 26, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – So far, 2008 hasn’t been Tony Stewart’s year.

The two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion is winless this season and, although he did make the Chase for the championship, Stewart hasn’t done much in the first two races of the stock car racing’s postseason to make anybody’s list of favorites to win the title.

Even so, heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway, Stewart is one win — or at least a couple of top-fives — from becoming a serious contender despite beginning the Chase in 10th place.

After finishing eighth at New Hampshire and 11th last Sunday at Dover, Stewart is seventh in the standings, just 113 points behind series leader Carl Edwards with eight of the 10 Chase races remaining.

So, considering he hasn’t yet had one of his typical streaks of top-five finishes this season, is Stewart going to be a factor over the next two months?

“It’s strictly a week-to-week deal,” Stewart said before heading to Kansas. “All of the questions the media ask are all theoretical questions. Well, I’m not a philosopher.

“None of us can predict this. If we could, we’d be bookies in Las Vegas making millions of dollars betting on these races instead of driving in them. And it’s a heck of a lot safer sitting in a chair in that dark room letting cocktail waitresses bring you drinks. I don’t have the answers.”

But Stewart does have an interesting history on the 1.5-mile Kansas oval, where he has five top-10 finishes in seven starts, including a win two years ago when he was not part of the Chase and a tough loss a year ago, when he was a contender.

The victory came in a race where Stewart stretched his final load of gas to the limit, coasting across the finish line with a dry tank.

It appeared he would be the winner last year, too, when heavy rain, accompanied by lightning and thunder, stopped the race past the halfway point with Stewart leading. But NASCAR restarted the race after a 2½-hour delay and Stewart wound up crashing out and finishing 39th.

Instead of coming away from Kansas leading the points, Stewart found himself fourth, 117 points behind eventual champion Jimmie Johnson. Stewart went on to finish fourth in the points. And his winless string now stands at 42 races, dating to Watkins Glen in August 2007.

So, does Kansas owe him a win?

“That was just circumstances,” Stewart said. “We were able to win a fuel-mileage race where we really weren’t in a position to win, but because of our situation in the point standings, we were able to gamble and go for it. Somebody else that day lost a race they should’ve won. And last year may have been one of those for us. But it all comes out in the wash and it all averages out eventually.”

The way the 26-race regular season went, nobody could have predicted that Stewart would be in the best position of the three Joe Gibbs Racing entries after the first two Chase races.

Kyle Busch, who won eight races and built a big points lead, is last in the 12-man Chase after finishes of 34th and 43rd, while Denny Hamlin, who began the Chase in fourth, is 11th after a 38th-place finish at Dover.

Stewart feels bad for both of them, but particularly for the 23-year-old Busch, who said again Friday that he believes his disastrous start has knocked him out of contention.

“For those guys, they can just throw caution to the wind and go for wins now,” Stewart said. “If I were Kyle, I’d go out there and just worry about winning races again. It’s been a remarkable, record-setting year for that kid, and the best way to finish it off now is to go out there and win three or four races during the Chase.

“It’s hard to tell him to keep his head up. I mean, there’s nobody who’s going to make him feel better right now, and rightfully so. The kid has worked hard all year. The team has worked hard all year. They’ve just had two bad races in a row, and that’s what you hope doesn’t happen, obviously. You feel for those guys.”

Unlike his teammates, Stewart knows he has an opportunity to put himself squarely into the championship picture with a few good finishes. But he isn’t making any predictions.

“All we can do is speculate on what’s going to happen until each week actually happens,” he said. “So, all we can do is guess on what’s going to happen. If any of us can predict the top-10 positions in Sunday’s race, you’re a genius, let alone figuring out how the next eight weeks are going to be.”