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Happy Hour: Stewart not conceding with half a Chase still to go

October 20, 2012, Holly Cain, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

After an amazing Chase run last year, a top-five finish has eluded Tony Stewart through five Chase races this season. (Getty Images)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- For all intents and purposes, Tony Stewart spent last fall in Victory Lane.

He won five of the 10 Chase races, including three of the last four en route to one of the most dominant postseason performances in NASCAR history, essentially yanking the Sprint Cup trophy right out of Carl Edwards hands.

Kansas Speeds

Practice 2
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2. A. Almirola 185.854 29.055
3. K. Kahne 185.727 29.075
4.M. Kenseth 185.573 29.099
5. M. Truex Jr. 185.370 29.131
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2. R. Smith 182.550 29.581
3. J. Johnson 182.54329.582
4. K. Kahne 182.506 29.588
5. M. Truex Jr. 182.482 29.592

This time last year was fun times along the road to redemption for Stewart, who finally snapped Jimmie Johnson's five-year hold on the championship and became the first driver to win titles in both championship formats.

This year's Chase? Not as much fun. Yet.

Stewart has had only two top-10 finishes in five Chase races and a late crash at Talladega two weeks ago -- a half lap from what looked like a win for the No. 14 Chevy -- really delivered a points blow. He hasn't won a race since July 7 at Daytona and sits eighth in the standings, a hefty 50-points behind leader Brad Keselowski entering Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

"Last year we had a really good stretch about this time of year, but we are in a little different scenario this year,'' Stewart acknowledged Friday from Kansas.

"You never say never, and this track obviously it's new for everybody this weekend, so that gives us the opportunity to try and to take advantage of it.

"We really missed on an opportunity at Talladega. I mean we had an opportunity to gain 20-some odd points and that would have put us in a very similar situation where we were last year.

"That was an opportunity that got away because of a mistake I made.''

But while Stewart must now make up ground to defend his championship, he hardly is out of contention. Half of the Chase races remain and he's the defending winner at the majority of them.

* Qualifying the Chasers: Kansas

Stewart will roll off a frustrating 33rd in Sunday's race at Kansas, but he was faster in both Saturday practices.

He was ninth-fastest in final practice that was paced by Matt Kenseth's Ford (182.760 mph) and three Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets: the No. 88 driven by Regan Smith, the No. 48 driven by Johnson and the No. 5 of pole-sitter Kasey Kahne.

Smith was fastest in a two-day open test at the newly paved Kansas track earlier this week substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is sitting out his second Cup race while recovering from a concussion.

Landon Cassill's spin about halfway through Happy Hour was the only incident in the session.

Juan Montoya brushed the wall in the morning practice, but did not need to go to a backup.

With a reconfigured, freshly paved track this weekend, this race has more variables than normal with the potential to level the playing field and change the championship dynamic. At least that's what drivers such as Stewart are counting on.

And he refuses to concede anything yet.

"We have learned that until they mathematically tell you you're out, you still have just as good a shot as anybody,'' Stewart said. "We will keep plugging away. We are only halfway through this [Chase] now so we are staying focused.

"We are racing like we are still racing to win the championship right now.''