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Column: Tony Stewart is running on fumes in Chase for the Cup

Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart faces elimination this weekend in NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover, Del.
(Jim Cole / Associated Press)

Tony Stewart’s prospects of winning another Sprint Cup title in his last run are just about, well, “Up in Smoke.”

This will come as bittersweet news in the NASCAR Nation. Stewart is as polarizing as it gets on the circuit: loved or loathed, with few in-between.

Fans adore his feistiness and snarky demeanor. Fans hate his temperament and volatility.

Whatcha got?

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What Stewart doesn’t have is a very good chance to advance to the next three-race round of the Chase for the Cup playoffs. He faces elimination this weekend in Dover, Del., where the field will be whittled from 16 to 12.

Stewart is more than a bubble boy, ranked 15th and 11 points out of 12th place.

He needs to win at Dover or finish in the top five and hope that some of the guys in front of him have a bad day.

And that’s asking a lot, considering his average finish in the last six races is 26.3.

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Stewart found some great “mojo” in the regular season, holding off Denny Hamlin for a victory at Sonoma, ending an 84-race victory drought. But it has been a bit downhill since then, especially with a 16th-place at Chicagoland followed by a 23rd-place run at New Hampshire last weekend.

Stewart did have a nice takeaway from New Hampshire. Track officials honored him with a 7,000-pound granite stone highlighting his five career NASCAR and IndyCar victories at the track.

No doubt that he was one of the sentimental picks among his peers, although you could probably discount Ryan Newman among those wishing Tony good luck (see Richmond race).

“He’s always been feisty,” Chase qualifier Jimmie Johnson said in Chicago a few weeks back. “There’s been more speed in his car, which has been good to see. That’s led to some more feistiness, I guess. But that win in Sonoma, that was a cool moment. I think everybody here can talk to the feelings they had seeing him win. I know I was way happy for him.

“You know, he has that in there. He can do it. We watched him win half the races in one Chase and become the champion. After that I learned not to count him out.”

One last shot remains to stay in this thing.

Were Stewart to rally to win the championship, it would be his fourth Cup title, a nice cherry topping on a Hall of Fame career.

“I want to be there at the end,” he said at the start of the Chase. “I’m not worried about leading laps and all that. The first segment, you got almost half of the field in this. You’re not going to win the championship in this first segment, but you can sure take yourself out of an opportunity to win it.

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“It’s,‘Don’t make mistakes. Don’t make mistakes. Be solid.’ ”

It has not worked out that way. Onward to Dover, to see if Stewart is still smokin’ by the end of Sunday’s race.

Dale Earnhardt update

Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains on the mend with concussion-related symptoms, but he will be back trackside to cheer on his Hendrick Motorsports teammates this weekend at Dover International Speedway.

Earnhardt — who shut it down for the rest of the year on doctor’s advice after suffering a mid-season concussion — promises that he will be watching the Xfinity and Sprint Cup races from the pit box.

He’s hoping that gives a little extra giddy-up to Chase qualifiers Johnson and Chase Elliott.

“It’s going to be different and tough and maybe not a ton of fun,” he said on his Dale Jr. Download podcast Monday. “It’s a bit weird to not be in the car but at the track. When you’re a driver, you don’t know what to do with yourself. I’ll try to support the guys and learn a thing or two.

“Excited to see how [substitute driver] Jeff [Gordon] does; he usually runs great at Dover. It’s going to be different. We’ll see how it goes.”

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Earnhardt also reported incremental progress on his health-related issues. He said his vision issues mostly have subsided, and his rehabilitation exercises no longer are causing bad side effects.

“The only thing that triggers the symptoms is going somewhere I’m unfamiliar with, going somewhere I’ve never been, where it is busy, a lot of people talking, a lot of movement, a lot of visual stimulation,” Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt is hopeful of returning to competitive driving next season.

“I’m going to be doing a lot of stuff that’s really hard for anybody to do to try to continue to improve the balance and my response time and how quick I’m reacting to things and so forth. [I’m] still working on it and I enjoy the work.”

Pit-stop changes?

A lot of industries are cost-cutting these days. NASCAR is no exception.

Discussions are ongoing between team owners and NASCAR officials to consider reducing the number of pit-crew members going over the wall from six to five, according to Motorsport.com.

The move could happen as early as 2017. Each team would be allowed to decide how to orchestrate its pit stops. The most likely scenario involves the elimination of a tire carrier.

The measure is also seen as a safety initiative to eliminate additional persons along pit road.


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