Tony Stewart went the entire season without winning a Sprint Cup race until last weekend in Chicago in the first event in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup championship playoff. Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the man they call "Smoke" was in the right place at the right time to win for the second week in a row, making him the victor in the first two races and vaulting Stewart into the lead in the ten-event Chase for the Sprint Cup.
What makes this such an interesting story is that less than two weeks ago, Stewart wasn't even assured of making the Chase field, and after securing the final automatic qualifier position in the 12-car field, he projected his chances of winning this year's Chase as being as good a nil. It's probably safe to say that the co-owner-driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing is having different thoughts today. It's interesting to note, however, that the driver leading the points after the second race has never gone on to win the Chase in the seven years the season-ending championship event has been held.
With 40 laps to go at the racetrack known as the Magic Mile, Clint Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon were running one, two, three, all three cars separated by only 1.1 seconds. With under ten laps to go, Bowyer was still in the lead, but Stewart was pressuring him and there was a big question whether Bowyer would have enough fuel to make it to the end and still hold off Stewart. With just three laps to go, Denny Hamlin, driving the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, was in seventh position when his fuel tank hit empty, and one lap later, two from the checkered flag, Bowyer ran out of gas.
From there, it was easy sailing for Stewart to the finish line. He was followed by Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers. Biffle also ran out of gas, but still managed to hold on to third. Bowyer was unable to complete the race and ended up 26th.
A two-time Sprint Cup champion (2002 and 2005), Stewart is the second driver to win the first two Chase races (Biffle did it in 2008). Sunday's race at New Hampshire was a complete reversal of the first Chase event there a year ago. In that race, the roles of Stewart and Bowyer were reversed. It was Stewart who ran out of gas with a lap to go, and Bowyer was right there in the right place to take advantage and bag the victory.
"If that's not a flip-flop from last year, I don't know what is," Stewart said on his radio as he took the checkered flag in Sunday's race.
Stewart's only lead the entire afternoon at New Hampshire was the final two laps. It was his eighth Chase victory, tying him for second all-time behind Jimmie Johnson's 19.
All four Roush Fenway Racing cars finished in the top ten Sunday, including Columbia, Mo.-native Carl Edwards, who came in eighth after starting the race 23rd.
With eight more races to go in the Chase for the Cup, only three drivers are within 20 points of Stewart. Kevin Harvick, the leader after the first week of the Chase, is in second place, seven points back, Keselowski is 11 points behind and Edwards is fourth, 14 points off the lead.
In two weeks, the Chase comes to Kansas Speedway for race No. 4 in the championship.