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. 10 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 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 fives, 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 No. 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.
Smoke was back in the car the next week at Pocono and finished third 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 Stewart 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 [Tony] 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 Earnhardt and 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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