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Stewart misses the Chase

The defending champ struggles at Richmond, allowing Kasey Kahne to ride his way into the top 10.

By BRANT JAMES
Published September 10, 2006


RICHMOND, Va. - There will be no title defense for Tony Stewart.

The two-time Nextel Cup champion saw an ill-fated weekend at Richmond International Raceway to its frustrating conclusion Saturday night, starting poorly in a backup car, struggling all night and finishing 18th to allow Kasey Kahne to race into the Chase for the Championship.

Kevin Harvick, meanwhile, concluded a much different kind of weekend by passing the often-dominant car of Kyle Busch with less than two laps left to sweep the Nextel Cup and Busch Series races at the track. Harvick beat Busch by 0.154 seconds, and Kahne was third, finishing with 16 more points than Stewart to make the Chase for the first time. He'd fallen from ninth and out of the Chase at Richmond as a rookie in 2004.

The series wins leader with five, Kahne said he did not know how fluid the points were for much of the race, with less than 50 points often separating positions five through 11.

"I knew we had to run up front to make the Chase, and if I knew where the points were, I didn't know what I could do to go any faster," he said. "I would never have thought it was Tony Stewart running bad. I figured he'd be in it."

The 10-race Chase will begin with Matt Kenseth as the points leader, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Harvick, Busch, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon and Kahne. Kenseth's point total will be reset at 5,050 points, with each driver incrementally five points behind.

"It feels good to get it, but the main thing is not to give it back," said Kenseth, the 2003 series champion.

Stewart's failure to qualify was an abrupt end to a tumultuous season. He was banged up rolling a sprint car in the offseason. His declaration after the Bud Shootout that someone would be killed by aggressive driving at Daytona International Speedway spurred NASCAR to institute a rule that was first used to penalize him when he ran Kenseth off the track. He flipped a Busch car at Talladega, injured his ribs in crashes at Charlotte and needed a replacement driver at Dover. He had on-track run-ins with Ryan Newman, Busch, Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards. And he still seemed poised to make a run after winning the Pepsi 400, even though he never reproduced his summer charge of 2005, when he won five times in a seven-week stretch, and rode five top-fives in the Chase to his second championship.

Stewart was contrite if not stunned on pit road after the race.

"It takes 26 weeks to get to this point. We just missed tonight," said Stewart, who is assured of his first finish outside the top 10 in eight seasons at NASCAR's top level. "We've still got 10 more races to try and go out and win. This is proof of how tough this series is and how tough it is to make the Chase."

Stewart's night was effectively over when Busch, whom he has so vigorously bashed as a reckless youngster this season, lapped him on Lap 304. With Burton, who started the race 10th in points, consistently racing his No. 31 Chevrolet in the top five and Kahne doing the same, Stewart had no room for error.

Stewart's only hope was for the plummeting Jeff Gordon to fall out of the race, a distinct possibility, Gordon said, if he pushed his woeful car any harder. Although the four-time champion fell two laps down and finished 31st, he was able to make the Chase after missing last season, finishing two points ahead of Kahne.

Although he started the night eighth in points, Stewart seemed safely in the Chase partly because of his three previous wins at the 0.75-mile track. And partly because Tony Stewart just wouldn't let this happen. But his season had begun to unhinge Friday when he crashed his primary car early in practice, then qualified his backup car 40th. Just 76 points separated Stewart from 11th-place Kahne, and everyone chasing qualified well ahead of him. They chopped into his points lead almost immediately as he was mired in traffic of lesser cars.

Stewart apologized to his team as the race ended, saying over his team radio, "I'm sorry guys. I crashed the first one."

Stewart, running in 30th position, appeared to grow impatient early, spinning the slower No. 14 Chevrolet of Sterling Marlin coming out of Turn 4 as race-leader Harvick threatened to lap him.

Stewart fell outside the Chase boundary on a pit cycle on Lap 220 as his car became "looser than (expletive)," he said on his team radio, and a sticking throttle forced him to pull the pedal fully out with his toes.

The points race became more compelling than the on-track product by Lap 280 of 400 as half the field realized one mistake would likely end their championship hopes. Hard racing ended for all but Kahne, Stewart and Martin as they fought for the final spots and teams began clicking off safe laps until the last dash.

All except for Harvick, that is.

"I'd rather flip over and run 10th in the Chase than give up a chance to win a race," said Harvick, who won for the third time this season. "They are too hard to come by."

Harvick now has a first chance to race for wins that really matter, in the Chase. For Stewart, not this year.