It’s unbelievable how one man’s belief and comments can have such an effect on so many people. After the regular-season finale at Richmond, Tony Stewart made the comment that he felt that he wasn’t a title contender when the Chase began.
My how things have changed.
Two races into the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, that idea has certainly changed. Last week at Chicagoland, Stewart managed to outlast the competition to get his first win of the season. The season was nearly lost if Stewart didn’t get a victory, and now that he got it the momentum and the confidence began coming his way.
It was then to New Hampshire on Sunday, a race that one year ago Stewart had in the bag until he ran out of fuel coming to the white flag.
In an ironic twist of fate, the guy that beat him last year was the one he was trying to outrun on fuel this year. Clint Bowyer took the victory in 2011, passing Stewart on the last lap. This year, it was Stewart’s turn to repay the favor. Coming to two laps to go, Bowyer began sputtering in the third turn, and Stewart pounced in the fourth turn, taking the lead.
With a seven-second advantage, Stewart put the car in cruise control and knew he had the win in the bag.
“If that’s not a flip-flop from last year, I don’t know what is,” Stewart said on the radio to crew chief Darian Grubb coming to the finish. It certainly was, and it also gives the Stewart-Haas Racing organization a complete sweep of the New Hampshire races. Teammate Ryan Newman won the pole and the race at the first race in July, and now the two Indiana-native drivers split Sunday’s Sylvania 300 as Newman again won the pole.
What has me intrigued is the fact that Stewart outright admitted that he felt his team was not a championship contender. That’s a bold statement coming from a two-time champion, and the last Chase champion not named Jimmie Johnson.
I honestly would never expect that coming from Stewart, so I was caught off guard. But it’s possibly the best thing to have happen to this team. Now, Stewart is riding a major swing of momentum heading into another one of his better tracks, which is the “Monster Mile” at Dover next weekend.
This year, when the Chase field was set, I didn’t have Stewart as my top pick for the title, but I didn’t have him in the basement either. I had him as a top-five choice, and that was being very kind as it was a very tough choice this year to decide who is the best championship contender, since all were very good.
Now, I’d say Stewart has caught everyone’s eye and is already being talked about as being one of the drivers that could take away the championship from Johnson.
Adding to that fact that Johnson has struggled the last two weeks and has fallen to 10th in the standings, I’m a firm believer that thanks to this new point system and how they have not been on the same page all season, Johnson is not the favorite to win the title. His only win this year was at Talladega, a track where anyone can win and it’s more about the driver pushing than the one being pushed.
One thing is for certain, the guy nicknamed “Smoke” is back, and he’s ready to burn up the track on his way to a third championship.
RESULTS: 1-Stewart 2-Keselowski 3-Biffle 4-Gordon 5-Vickers 6-Kenseth 7-Ragan 8-Edwards 9-Montoya 10-Smith
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Kyle Busch 12-Harvick 15-Kahne 17-Earnhardt Jr. 18-Johnson 22-Kurt Busch 25-Newman 29-Hamlin
CAUTIONS: 3 for 14 laps. Lap 88-91 (Debris), 157-162 (No. 51 accident-T2), 174-177 (#17, 99 accident-T2).
LEAD CHANGES: 19 among 15 drivers. Newman 1-62, Gordon 63, Smith 64-66, Kahne 67-88, Martin 89-134, Kahne 135-147, Gordon 148-157, Ragan 158, Kahne 159-162, Gordon 163-229, Keselowski 230, Montoya 231-232, Vickers 233-236, Harvick 237, Johnson 238, Truex Jr. 239-241, Kurt Busch 242-245, Kahne 246-249, Bowyer 250-298, Stewart 299-300.
TIME OF RACE: 2 Hrs, 43 Mins, 13 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 116.679 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 7.225 Seconds
2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup: 1. Stewart, 2094 points; 2. Harvick, -7; 3. Keselowski, -11; 4. Edwards, -14; 5. Gordon, -23; 6. Kyle Busch, -26; 7. Kenseth, -26; 8. Earnhardt Jr, -26; 9. Kurt Busch, -28; 10. Johnson, -29; 11. Newman, -34; 12. Hamlin, -66