Tony Stewart is tied for 10th in the series point standings following Sunday’s Lenox Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Ryan Newman is eighth in points, but just 16 points away from being outside the top 10 cutoff for automatic qualification to NASCAR’s playoffs.
The key difference between the two is that Newman now has a victory to go with his points, and that could make the difference between racing for a title and racing to mark time over the final 10 races.
Newman was close on fuel, Stewart wasn’t. Both of them needed a victory to bolster Chase chances, and only one got it.
If you’ll remember the race at NHMS last fall, Stewart had the race all but won. He was in front with a comfortable lead when, coming down for the white flag, he ran out of gas. He finished in the 20s, and was never a factor in the Chase after that.
So, he and crew chief Darian Grubb made sure the car had plenty of gas left for the finish, and it worked out to the point that he had only his teammate in front of him at the end. Unfortunately, it also left him on the outside looking in if the Chase were to start tomorrow.
Stewart said that Newman’s gamble on fuel, so similar to his last fall in the Chase opener, was a huge one.
“It definitely was a big risk, for sure,” said the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet. “Honestly, I didn’t know. He got the lead pretty early. I knew how short we were. I didn’t know what kind of mileage they were getting for the day, if they were getting better mileage than we were.”
Had Newman run out, it still would have worked for Stewart, who would have picked up the victory he needed to anchor a position in the Chase. But Stewart didn’t seem to care that much either way.
“I think hindsight being 20/20, I don’t mind running second and having him win the race versus us winning the race and him running out of fuel,” he said. “This is a much more gratifying weekend for me.”
Well and good for Stewart to say that now. In about nine weeks, he will know whether or not the hindsight was 20/20 or 20/400.
Consider Jeff Gordon, who was on the same strategy as Stewart was but faded back at the end to finish 11th, thanks to an alternator issue and a flat tire in the closing laps. His strategy and that of the Stewart-Haas team were nearly identical.
But when the tire went down with a couple laps remaining, he fell to 17th and looked like he was a goner, but some drivers ahead of him ran out before the end and he gained six spots in a little more than a lap.
“I thought that Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) made some great calls there when we took four (tires) and others took two, it was a little risky but it really paid off for us,” Gordon said. “That got us a big lead. I think all we really had to do was maintain that towards the front and I think that the results might be a little bit different today. But that’s what you have to do. You have to survive these races in a lot of different ways and we had a lot of obstacles thrown at us with the alternator issue, which caused me to have to turn my A/C off and brake blowers, which probably ultimately blew that right front tire there at the end.”
For Gordon, it’s about getting into the Chase with a legit chance to win it, not just be there. With seven races to go, he is feeling pretty good about it, with two victories and a series of fast cars.
For another Hendrick Motor Sports driver, it’s about getting into the Chase, pure and simple.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 15th, which is better than he’s been the last four races. It might not be good enough to get him into the Chase, however, as he’s slipped from third to ninth in the points, seven off the 10th spot.
“Well, 15th ain’t awesome,” he said. “But certainly better than what we have been putting on points-wise. We had about a 15th place car last week and I have just got to stay calm and take what the heck I can get instead of trying to make something happen and ruining the day like I did last week. Today I just tried not to go crazy ‘cause I was really getting frustrated with the way the car drove. I was trying not to flip out in there and just try and get what I could get.
“We probably could have maybe tried to stay out instead of pitting at the end there and make it work, but I think we would have ended up somewhere around 15th anyway. So that’s just the way it was.”
Asked what he thought of his points position, Earnhardt Jr. was quick to see what he’s up against.
“Well, how far ahead of 11th I think is the most important part. That’s pretty tight. So we’ll have to keep an eye on that.”
If the Chase began next weekend, which it won’t, the Chase field would be Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Gordon, Newman, Earnhardt Jr. and either Hamlin or Stewart. David Ragan would be the wild card, by virtue of his victory at Daytona, and Stewart or Hamlin would be the 12th and final Chaser.
There are seven weeks to go before the Chase cuts off. Brad Keselowski and Regan Smith have victories but aren’t in the top 20 in points. That means that, starting with the Brickyard 400 on July 31, every team with a snowball’s chance in hell is going to be counting points and making decisions based on one thing and one thing only: getting to the top 10 in points.
It’s going to be wild, and it won’t end until the checkered at Richmond.
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