News & Media

Stewart finishes 'regular season' strong

September 09, 2012, Holly Cain, Special to NASCAR.COM,

After flailing down the stretch, No. 14 team uses fourth-place to earn bonus points

RICHMOND, Va. -- A year ago, Tony Stewart wondered if his team deserved to be in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup because of its midseason struggles. And then he promptly went out and won five of the final 10 races en route to his third championship.

"Nine points doesn't sound like a lot, three points doesn't sound like a lot; but when it came down to that last night [in 2011], one point was the biggest number you've ever seen in your life."


He was similarly frustrated this weekend at Richmond International Raceway, preparing for the final race of the regular season and still not an automatic lock into the Chase. His No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet was 42nd-fastest in Friday's opening practice and started Saturday night's race from the 14th row after Stewart declared he wasn't "happy with any part of my program right now.''

"I'm not even worried about the next 10 weeks because I can't even get through this week right now,'' Stewart said following Friday's practice.

Once it was race time, though, it looked as if the champ was back.

Stewart methodically picked off the competition and delivered a strong championship message in Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 to finish fourth and, more importantly, claim the third seed in the playoff run that starts next week in Chicago.

"After last year, you realize this next week is really the start of the second half of the season, so I'm glad to get that going,'' Stewart said, looking more relieved than satisfied. I had a strong night tonight, just not enough to finish it off at the end.

"I'm really proud of our team. I think we probably gained the most of anyone from yesterday to today. It was definitely a decent night, just a little short.''

Although not a headline-grabbing victory, the fourth-place effort kept Stewart within the top 10 in the regular season standings, which means he will start the Chase run with nine bonus points for his three wins.

"Especially knowing it came down to one point at the end of the year last year, those nine points are huge right now,'' said Stewart, who tied Carl Edwards in the final standings last season, but won the championship in a tiebreaker thanks to five wins versus Edwards' one.

"Nine points doesn't sound like a lot, three points doesn't sound like a lot; but when it came down to that last night [in 2011], one point was the biggest number you've ever seen in your life,'' Stewart said. "It was a big deal for us tonight to stay in the top-10 and make sure we got those bonus points and didn't lose them.''

To a man, the drivers claim there is no clear favorite for the 2012 title, so that only makes the bonus points just that -- a bonus. No one is buying Stewart's claims of being an underdog, especially not after last year. And especially not after his clutch performance Saturday.

"As crazy as last year was, I obviously never would have considered Tony much of a threat then. But he was, and they went on an incredible run,'' said the Chase's top-seed Denny Hamlin.

"I think it just shows you can't really write anyone off in the Chase. All these teams can be really good at any point in the season. Who knows who's saved what for Chicago.

"And Tony kind of has that bulldog effect, he's probably the most intimidating of anyone when you see him racing around you.''

Stewart isn't making any predictions, however. He joked this weekend that if declaring himself a long shot would produce a second consecutive title, he'd gladly do it.

"We have a long way to go, we'll see what happens and do the best we can,'' Stewart said