Stewart leads the early Chase

NASCAR

NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup is designed to shake things up and that’s exactly what’s happened this year. Tony Stewart was fighting through an indifferent year, but after two of the 10 Chase races he’s leading the Sprint Cup championship. During the first 26 races of regular season play Stewart didn’t win a single event, but he’s won twice in the past two weekends at Chicago and New Hampshire, both times helped by good fuel mileage.

At Chicago a bunch of cars ran out of fuel in the closing laps and in New Hampshire on Sunday leader Clint Bowyer’s tank ran dry with two laps to go. Bowyer won this race in 2010 when Stewart ran out of fuel on the last lap, but the roles were reversed this year as Stewart came through to win in a bid to claim his third NASCAR championship.

Stewart took the Sprint Cup title in 2002 and ‘05 driving Chevrolets for Joe Gibbs’ team. Last year he started his own team, Stewart/Haas Racing, in partnership with machine tool manufacturer Gene Haas. Stewart/Haas runs a pair of Chevrolets for Stewart and Ryan Newman with cars and engines supplied by Hendrick Motorsports. Stewart has made some public complaints about his team in recent weeks and last week he fired a few of his people.

“We’ve still got eight long weeks to go,” he said. “It’s way too early to count chickens right now, but we got rid of some of the dead weight earlier this week and that made it a lot easier. Sometimes you have to make adjustments in your life and we did that and it definitely helped us this weekend. These guys have never quit. They’ve never given up and we’ve got a shot at this thing.”

At this stage in the Chase for the Cup anything is possible. No driver who’s led the points after two races since the system has been in use has gone on to win the championship.

With eight races to go, all on successive weekends, Stewart leads with 2094 points, seven more than second-placed Kevin Harvick. Brad Keselowski finished second to Stewart in New Hampshire and is third in the points, 11 behind Stewart. Fourth is Carl Edwards with Jeff Gordon fifth, Kyle Busch sixth, Matt Kenseth seventh, Dale Earnhardt Jr eighth, Kurt Busch ninth and defending champion Jimmie Johnson 10th. Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin are the remaining contenders in 11th and 12th.

Johnson had a tough race in New Hampshire, finishing 18th, but he believes he still has a chance to take a sixth consecutive title. “You’ve just got to take each race as they come,” he said. “In my experience of winning five [championships] we lost the points lead due to a wreck on the last lap at Talladega and came back and won. So anything can happen. But days like we had today aren’t what you hope for.”

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