If Stewart, Dale Jr. make the Chase, are they title contenders?
Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- both winless -- are still fighting for Chase spots
Both believe, however, that they have a chance to win the Cup championship
It's not without precedence, but both have a bevy of problems they need to fix
The moment was overshadowed for all but a few. Come Saturday night, it might not mean anything. Or it could become symbolic of a change taking place for Tony Stewart and his team.
Stewart's charge to third at the end of Tuesday's rain-delayed and rain-interrupted race at Atlanta included passing Brad Keselowski -- the driver Stewart's racing to stay in the Chase. Most might have missed it, though, transfixed by the duel between teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson for the win.
While Stewart passed many cars in the final laps, passing Keselowski had special meaning.
"That was a huge momentum swing for us just knowing we did beat them,'' said Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief. "They had been better on the mile-and-a-half game lately than we have.
"With the hot streak with Keselowski and those guys right now, they were the guys we were watching more than anything because we knew they were going to have a good day.''
Even with that small victory, Stewart finds himself fighting for one of the final Chase spots -- along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- heading into Saturday night's race at Richmond.
Should either or both make it, though, the question becomes if they really can contend for a championship or if Saturday night will be among their last hurrahs in a season that offered so much promise but didn't fully deliver.
That Stewart and Earnhardt face the possibility of missing the Chase is mind numbing based on how they started.
Stewart was in position to win four races in the first couple months of the season and didn't. Had he won one, he would be all but set in the Chase. Earnhardt, who was as high as third in the points in June, was in position to win at Martinsville and Charlotte until losing the lead in the final moments. A winless streak that stretches back to 2008 continues. The question now is if he can snap his Chase drought. He's missed it the past two years.
Simply, both Stewart and Earnhardt control their fate Saturday. Earnhardt needs only to finish 20th or better to clinch a Chase spot. Should he lead a lap or the most laps, he can finish a little worse to clinch. Stewart needs to finish 18th or better to clinch a Chase spot. Should he lead a lap or the most laps, he can also finish a little worse and still make the Chase.
The main focus for both, though, is not about making the Chase but winning the championship. It's left both frustrated the past few weeks. Three races ago, Stewart said, "If we are going to run this bad, it really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase or not.''
He was in a better mood Tuesday but questions remain about his ability to rediscover what worked so well early in the season when he was nearly winning races -- and led the points after Las Vegas in March.
"It's been a tough couple of months,'' Stewart said.
Even in Tuesday's race, the team was inconsistent on pit road.
"We've got to make sure we keep all of our morale up for every team member because as long as everybody is doing their job, Tony shows us what he can do right there when he came from 15th to third in the last 20 seconds,'' Grubb said.
Although Stewart is winless -- only one other time, 2008, has he been winless this deep into a season -- Grubb says that the team shouldn't be counted out as a title contender.
"I really feel like we're going to be a contender if we get there just because of Tony's mindset and as good as he is,'' Grubb said. "We've missed a few items as a team on pit stops and some setups and some pit strategy and things like that, but all of that changes when you get to the Chase. Everybody changes their game and changes how hard they run.''
Change would be good for Earnhardt. His 19th-place finish was the 10th time in the last 11 races that he's finished outside the top 10. He's led eight laps during that span. Earnhardt knows there's time for things to get better, but he's not pleased with how he has run.
"We've just got a little writer's block or something, I don't know,'' Earnhardt said. "It's like we were going fine, cars were great all year long and we've hit some sort of invisible barrier where we just can't seem to sort of break through and get back to cars driving good.
"The cars have characteristics that have repeated every weekend that we didn't have earlier. I've been telling them about it and telling them about it, like 'Look, man, this thing has been doing this and it's been doing it for six weeks.' It didn't do it all year long and that's a big problem and we need to figure out what that is, something we sort of evolved to on the chassis or something is hurting us. I'm sure we'll figure it out.''
The challenge is that teams don't suddenly struggle one day and rarely can they fix their problems overnight. It takes time, something which Stewart and Earnhardt are running short of provided both make the Chase.
"We started the year, we had decent speed,'' said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief. "I feel that we haven't been able to improve our setups maybe as well as other people have. As amazing as it would look, I don't think we've gotten worse, I think other people have gotten better. We haven't found that piece to the puzzle yet that maybe we're missing. We're running and we're running all day long. We need to run better than the mid-to-high teens but I feel this team is capable of doing that.''
If there is some solace for Stewart and Earnhardt as they head toward the Chase looking for their first win, it is what has happened in previous Chases.
Clint Bowyer was winless in the first 26 races of the 2007 season before he won the opening Chase race that year on the way to finishing third in the points. Greg Biffle was winless in the first 26 races of the 2008 season and then won the opening two races of the Chase on the way to finishing third in the points. Bowyer repeated his 2007 feat last year but NASCAR ruled his car was illegal and severely penalized him, ending his title hopes.
Still, based on how Earnhardt and Stewart have run lately, it's hard to see how they can contend with Johnson, Gordon and others for a championship. Don't tell that to Earnhardt, though.
"If you're doing something,'' he said, "you've got to believe in what you're doing, you've got to believe that you can get it done and that's the attitude that you've got to have. If I didn't think that or feel that, I don't need to be driving race cars.''
Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.
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