One year ago, Tony Stewart was on the outside looking in.
The two-time NASCAR Nextel Cup champion – the only driver to have won titles in both the old points format and the four-year-old Chase for the championship – missed out on qualifying for the 10-race stock car playoff by 16 points.
No problem this year.
Stewart, following a career pattern, got hot at midseason and closed strong, finishing second in the pre-Chase points. Since the July 15 Chicagoland race, he has three wins and has not finished worse than 13th.
With the new seeding process – a 10-point bonus for each win during the 26-race “regular season” – Stewart enters Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway trailing Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon by 30 and 10 points.
“I’m just glad we’re back here and glad we’re running the way we are,” Stewart said. “I think it shows the quality of the team we’ve got after a disappointment like last year to come back and finish the regular season second in points. Now we start the Chase third, so we’re in a good spot.”
Stewart’s effort to make the Chase field, which grew from 10 to 12 this season, was a big story a year ago. This year’s focus was on Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver, who came up short for the second time in three years.
“You feel bad for everybody that didn’t make the Chase,” Stewart said. “It’s not just Dale Jr. There’s a bunch of other guys that 36 weeks a year come out here and race their hearts out and race just as hard as Dale Jr. does.
But the top 12 teams are the ones that make it, and that’s just the way it is.”
Asked what the difference was for his Joe Gibbs Racing team this year, Stewart said, “I don’t think we had any real, devastatingly bad luck like we had last year.
“Last year, we blew a couple of motors up early in the season, and the two or three weeks before the Chase we just had some bad, bad races. This year, we ran fourth at Bristol. We had a mediocre day at California and still ended up 13th. Then we came to Richmond (last Saturday) and ran second. And, as much as we wanted to win at Richmond, I think in the big picture, we’re all just happy that we’ve got a chance to run for the championship this year.”