Just when it seemed that NASCAR’s playoffs couldn’t get any more puzzling, along comes this twist: The hottest driver during this Chase for the Nextel Cup isn’t even in it.
Tony Stewart, who didn’t make the cut in September, got his second win of the playoff season in Sunday’s Bass Pro Shops 500.
Through seven Chase races, the 2005 Nextel Cup champion has scored more points, 995, than any current contender.
“But we’re not in the Chase,” Stewart retorted to a flurry of questions he dismissed as “what ifs and coulda-shouldas.”
He’d had an easier time out on Atlanta Motor Speedway, holding off three contenders in the late laps: Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth, in finishing order.
Were he in contention for the title, Stewart maintained, he probably wouldn’t have done this well lately.
“If we were in the Chase, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did at Kansas City,” he said of an Oct. 1 win when he coasted to the finish line out of gas. “Tonight would have been the same [dominant] night, but Kansas City might have turned out totally different because we wouldn’t have been able to take that chance [on fuel].”
Then he turned to a defense of the contenders who have taken a lot of commentary about what points leader Kenseth has been calling a “sloppy” Chase so far.
“There’s a lot of pressure on those guys,” Stewart said. “Sometimes it gets you off your game a little bit. Sometimes it makes you be a little bit conservative. Sometimes, because of the pressure, you make mistakes. Those guys are in a totally different situation than we are.
“So it’s easier for us to go out and just try to win races.”
Kenseth felt a little better remaining at the top of the standings with his fourth-place finish. He’d come into Sunday’s race with an average finish of 12th in the first six Chase races.
“Other people’s troubles have kind of put us in the points lead,” Kenseth said of a chaotic Chase in which bad luck has struck every other contender -- some twice or even three times. “So it feels good tonight to be competitive, and keep it.”
Johnson’s second-place finish Sunday vaulted him to second in the Chase, only 26 points behind Kenseth. Johnson extended his surge to three consecutive weeks after a second-place finish at Concord, N.C., Oct. 14 and a win at Martinsville, Va., Oct. 22.
“I’m closer than I’ve ever been, number-wise, to the lead in the Chase,” said Johnson, who has been a contender for the championship in all five seasons since he graduated to Cup level as well as in all three Chases so far. “I’m optimistic.”
But after Johnson, the standings have spread out with three races remaining.
Rookie Denny Hamlin limped into third place in points with an eighth-place run Sunday but is 65 points behind Kenseth. Earnhardt and Jeff Burton are tied for fourth, 84 points out.
Kevin Harvick plunged from second in points, only 36 out, all the way to sixth, 121 behind, after fighting an ill-handling car and finishing 31st.
Earnhardt took a longshot at winning by staying out on the track on worn tires during the next-to-last caution period and inheriting the lead. But Stewart, on fresh tires, flashed past Earnhardt after the restart with 11 laps left. Johnson also got around Earnhardt but was no real threat to Stewart after that.
“We knew we could get by the 8 [Earnhardt] because tires were so important,” Stewart said.
One more caution followed a wreck that collected veteran Mark Martin and all but knocked him out of contention for the championship in this, his final full Cup season.
Kasey Kahne wrecked on Lap 248 and devastated his championship chances, falling to ninth in the standings, 210 points behind.
Ed Hinton covers auto racing for Tribune newspapers.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Nextel Cup standings with three races remaining:
*--* Driver Points Behind 1. Matt Kenseth 6,008 -- 2. Jimmie Johnson 5,982 26 3. Denny Hamlin 5,943 65 4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 5,924 84 5. Jeff Burton 5,924 84 6. Kevin Harvick 5,887 121 7. Jeff Gordon 5,862 146 8. Mark Martin 5,807 201 9. Kasey Kahne 5,798 210 10. Kyle Busch 5,759 249
* Sunday: Dickies 500 (Fort Worth)
* Nov. 12: Checker Auto Parts 500 (Phoenix)
* Nov. 19: Ford 400 (Miami)