The Frontstretch: NASCAR Still Has The Power To Leave You In A State Of Shock by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday September 10, 2006

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NASCAR Still Has The Power To Leave You In A State Of Shock

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday September 10, 2006


It may not be the case all the time; OK, maybe less than half the time. Believe it or not, though, NASCAR does have certain rules that are black and white, and the rules surrounding the Chase for the Championship are one such set. Ten drivers and everyone within 400 points of the leader make the Chase…no more, no less, unless there's a tie for 10th place. So, with nine drivers fighting for eight Chase spots Saturday night, it was nothing but pure common sense to conclude that someone was going to be left out.

Surprisingly enough, that didn't stop the over 100,000 fans, media, and garage members in attendance to still leave the track in a state of shock. The mood at Richmond, if one could even describe it, was surreal, as people from all walks of the sport discussed if what they had just seen really happened. The irony is that for once, there was no rules controversy; indeed, one driver was left out of this year's running for the championship. It’s just so happened to be the driver no one would have expected.

No matter what people’s feelings were on Tony Stewart, everyone seemed to react like they'd entered the Twilight Zone. Stewart? How could it be? Surely, the man left on the outside looking in would be Mark Martin - he'd gone winless this season and had struggled over the past month and a half, as had Jeff Burton. On the other hand, Stewart hadn't really had so much as a hiccup during that same stretch - including Richmond, he's had two Top 5s, five Top 10s, an 18th, and a 22nd in the last seven races, hardly numbers that you think would drop him out of Chase contention. The sport’s defending champion, Stewart may have entered Richmond eighth in points, but these are the types of circumstances in which the bold, hard-charging 35-year-old lays it all out on the line, rises to the occasion in the face of danger. In most eyes, he was more of a lock than third place Kevin Harvick, who needed just a 40th place finish to clinch a Chase spot on Saturday night.

But the 20 car wasn’t a lock, and the team lost the key to the door sometime during an eight race stretch during May, June, and July. It's a stretch that Stewart doesn't like to talk about, a crash and an injury that gets him defensive and angry under the pressure of constant questioning by the media. There's no denying, though, that it was a fractured shoulder that probably set Stewart's season back a little too far.

Injuring it in the Coke 600 at Charlotte the end of May, Stewart finished 42nd in that race and was forced out of the car the next week at Dover, relieved by Ricky Rudd shortly after the drop of the green flag. Rudd drew a pit road speeding penalty in that race, throwing a sure Top 10 finish out the window (and the many points that went with it) to earn a ho-hum 25th place for Stewart. Tony was back in the car the next week at Pocono, and finished 3rd on pure adrenaline…but then crashed at Michigan the week after that to finish 41st, and then was 28th at Sonoma with a mechanical problem. The rhythm that was so palpable to see for the No. 20 team throughout 2005 and early 2006 had been lost. By the end of July, it was back…but it was too late to erase the damage that had already been done. Perhaps the team was too complacent, too confident it was solidly in after righting the ship during the Dog Days of summer…but hindsight is always 20/20.

Stewart echoed those long-term sentiments Saturday night.

“It takes 26 weeks to get to this point,” said a humbled but gracious Tony upon exiting his car. “This is proof of how tough this season is and how tough it is just to make this Chase.”

“It’s a big letdown, obviously, but at the same time, there’s 10 guys who earned their way in there, too.”

Stewart had also been involved in his share of run-ins with drivers this season, in particular Matt Kenseth at Daytona and Kyle Busch at Las Vegas. Overall, though, the competitiveness in Tony has been displaced by an off track maturity that actually had drivers and fans disappointed the defending champion won’t be a part of the playoffs, an outpouring of sympathy that would have likely never happened just four years ago. It’s a positive sign of how much Stewart has changed…although sympathy does little to mend dreams that are no longer achievable.

“Tony is a good friend of mine,” said Dale Earnhardt, Jr. “I am sure they are dejected and disappointed.”

"I'm very surprised that Tony Stewart didn't make it in,” said Kasey Kahne after leapfrogging over him by 16 points. “I never would have thought he would be the one not to make it.”

Jeff Gordon was a little more blunt.

“When I heard Stewart was out, I was shocked,” he explained matter-of-factly before leaving the track.

No doubt, everyone feels the same way. The honest, no-nonsense Stewart is the kind of hard charger that makes the Chase a fight to the finish. The star power of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon were sorely missed last season in the Chase, but the absence of Stewart may be an even bigger blow for NASCAR’s playoffs.

In the meantime, everyone keeps waiting for the shock to wear off.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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©2000 - 2008 Thomas Bowles and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Rajeev Jaswal
09/11/2006 06:31 AM

NASCAR’s farcical drama is over for Smoke and I was hugely disappointed on Saturday night. He is one of the colorful characters that can stimulate the competition to perform better. He brings personality, charisma and excitement into racing and even interviews. Although I feel bad, I am relieved now that I won’t have to go through the agony rest of the year keeping a stressful eye on the points and hoping he doesn’t have any bad luck during the chase. Tony can now race freely, win some races and show everybody what he is capable of. There is no pressure on him and he should look towards getting his team stronger for 2007.

09/11/2006 10:22 AM

I can sympathize with Stewart’s fans but have absolutely none for Stewart himself. He was rude and arrogant and disrespectful to Dale Jr. last season when he did not make the Chase. I hope he has been humbled, even just a little, and realizes that he is “not all that” like he envisions himself. Stewart, learn from this year.

09/11/2006 10:23 AM

I hate to say it but I am not really shocked, while most of the media was covering Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and the rest they kept saying that Tony on his driving alone can get in. Yet whenever they showed Tony Stewart he seemed very stressed and worried when the accident with Newman happened Zippy was just sick. One man cannot carry a team that just shows no matter how talented you are Nascar is a team sport with a lot of variables. Equipment, tires, engines, crew etc. Tony Stewart was not enjoying this season at all I just think the pressure to repeat again as champion and also the many accidents he had this year and runins did him in.

That goes to show you even the most talented drivers dont make the Chase. With so many writers counting him in just goes to show you no one knows and no one can be counted on for the performance that so many of the writers expect. Guys you have to do your homework I could see Tony and Zippy was struggling. You’all gave them a pass.

09/11/2006 11:52 AM

It’s one of those situations where someone was going to be left out at the end of the race at RIR. No matter who it was…I knew I would feel very sad for that team. I can only imagine how Tony must have felt as he was driving during the race and realizing that his chances of being in the Chase and competing for another Championship was diminishing right before his eyes. Admirably, Tony handled his interviews after the race with a great deal of grace and dignity.

And I do feel a great deal of saddness for Tony and his team. However, that being said….I also feel this may be just what was needed for Tony and could, in the long run, be a very positive outcome for him and his team. However, for that to happen…it’s all up to Tony!

Although, Tony’s injury did factor into his 26 race results…imo, there’s more to be gained by looking at some of the other races. The real irony is that Tony has so generously been handing out tidbits of lessons to be learned throughout the season to so many drivers that are now in the Chase. Starting with the Daytona 500 and Matt Kennseth, now #1 in the Chase…then, in no particular order…Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, and even his rookie teammate Denny Hamlin. Then, there are the others like Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards, who were affected if not toward the Chase then at least for the race. They didn’t make the Chase but did receive on-track lessons from the two time Champ…Tony.

Tony is to be admired not only for his driving abilities, but also for his generous heart off the track. However, it may be that Tony should leave his generosity to off-track lessons and pursuits vs. allowing his hot temper to levy lessons to his peers on the track.

What’s really sad is that those lessons may have cost Tony more than he ever imagined. At least, this year. However, I have no doubt…Tony Stewart will continue to be a contendor for race wins and Championships for many years to come.

Rick. C.
09/11/2006 01:19 PM

Let’s hope that the girlfriend can keep him happy…Good job Tony, it’s ok, there is always next year!

09/11/2006 03:53 PM

The problem with the Chase is what happened to Tony..its not that he didn’t make the Chase that bothers me, it bothers me more that realistically he has in the last ten remaining races the chance to move himself up into the top-10 if there was not the Chase. The bottom 5 spots to 12th/13th are/were so close that in the remaining ten races the spots could have been shuffled around quite a bit. Now the best the guys on the outside of the chase can do is 11th..wheee

09/11/2006 04:25 PM

Nothing is worse than having the most points for the whole year and not winning the championship.

No one felt sorry for him. In 2005 either.
tough toenails.


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