The driver known as Smoke, Tony Stewart, tied Greg Biffle on Sunday as the only drivers to ever start the Chase with two consecutive victories. Biffle accomplished the feat in 2008, but failed to go on and win the title as Jimmie Johnson won his third consecutive title that year. But for Smoke, he hopes he can hang on to the momentum that he and his team have generated in this early portion of the Chase to go on and win his third series championship.
Smoke began the Chase in ninth place as he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were the last two drivers to clinch a spot in the top 10 that automatically moved into the Chase round of 10 races with two additional wild card drivers. He and Earnhardt Jr. were also the only two drivers in the Chase field that hadn’t won a race during the first 26 races of the season.
All of that has changed since he started the Chase 12 points behind Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. After victories at Chicago and New Hampshire, he now sits on top of the standings with a seven-point lead over Harvick. While Stewart now occupies the top spot, he knows that there is no time to celebrate because with the exception of Denny Hamlin in 12th since the Chase field was set, the remaining 11 drivers have either moved up or down in the standings after each of the first two races.
The new point system that is now being used for the first time ever in the Chase makes winning more important than in years past as it’s those bonus points for winning the race that may make all the difference when it comes down to the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami. Winning gives a driver 43 points for the win plus at least one bonus point for leading a lap. The winning driver is also rewarded with three bonus points for the win, giving him a total of 47 points.
There is another bonus point available to one driver and that is for leading the most laps. At New Hampshire Stewart only led two laps, but one of them was the one that counted the most.
It’s the first time for Stewart to be leading the Chase since 2005 when he went on to win the title. While he enjoys being in the lead as the series rolls into Dover this weekend, it is worth noting that no driver that has been leading after the second race of the Chase has gone on to win the title. Since this is the first year for the use of the new point system, it is now only speculation on how far a driver can come back in eight races but after the first two races there are only three drivers within 20 points of Stewart.
Five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson has struggled in his attempt to add to his streak of titles as he has fallen two spots after each of the first two races. He entered the Chase in the sixth spot, nine points from the top, but after Chicago he fell two spots to eighth, 16 points behind Kevin Harvick who sat on top after the first race. New Hampshire found him losing two more spots to 10th and dropping 29 points back of Stewart.
While Johnson was expected to be at or near the top of the standings after the first couple of races, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon entered the Chase as maybe the hottest driver in the series. He started third in the points only three points back from the leader after posting three wins on the season but after a bad race in the opener at Chicago he fell eight spots to 11th, 25 points off the lead. He was able to bounce back on Sunday at New Hampshire finishing fourth, which was good enough for him to climb six spots to fifth, but he was only able to cut two points from the point differential down to 23.
Joining Gordon as one of the hottest drivers entering the Chase is wild card driver Brad Keselowski. He had three wins on the season but didn’t get any bonus points to begin the Chase because he finished outside of the top 10. That put him starting 12 points behind like Stewart but after two races he now has climbed to third, only 11 points out of the lead. That shows that there is still a lot to be said about consistency winning championships, but Smoke has shown that the fastest way to the top is by visiting victory lane on a regular basis.
Race Preview Event: AAA 400 Track: Dover International Speedway (1-mile oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns) Date: Oct. 2, 2 p.m. TV: ESPN Radio: MRN Defending Champion: Jimmie Johnson