Stubborn Stewart takes a hit in point standings

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A wreck in Sunday's race dropped the defending champion into 11th place.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tony Stewart once said he should be fired if he failed to make NASCAR's Chase for the championship.

If he truly believes that, then Stewart's job is currently on the line.

The defending Nextel Cup champion dropped out of the top 10 following a 37th-place finish at New Hampshire International Speedway. Stewart is now 11th in the standings, and time is running out on the drivers jockeying to claim one of the 10 spots in the Chase.

With seven races left to set the field, Stewart's not exactly in panic mode. But he should be slightly concerned, and he's got no one to blame but himself.

Stewart was leading the race Sunday when he stubbornly refused to let Ryan Newman pass him.

Newman was a lap down, so the pass was not for the race lead and Stewart had nothing to lose by pulling over and letting Newman go by. Newman had fresh tires, a faster car and, one way or another, was going to get by Stewart.

But Stewart was angry over the way Newman has raced him in the past and simply would not give an inch of real estate away. It resulted in the two cars colliding as Newman closed in, and Stewart went spinning into the wall.

TV announ-cer Wally Dallenbach was only half-joking when he quipped that the smoke surrounding Stewart's car was not from the tires, but from Stewart's head.

He was still seething as he waited outside his Chevrolet for his crew to fix his damaged radiator.

Newman "just took us out," Stewart said. "We're starting to learn to race him like he races us and he doesn't give anybody a break so I wasn't about to give him a break.

"So, he'll just take me out then if you don't let him by. It's amazing how he expects you to let him by, but he doesn't give anybody that same courtesy."

But Newman put the blame right back on Stewart.

"He didn't live up to what he preaches, and that's move over and let a faster car go -- especially a car on fresh tires trying to get a lap back," Newman said. "He came down on us a little bit. I came up on him a little bit and we hit.

"He got the raw end of the deal. It didn't do us any favors, but he sure didn't live up to what he preaches."

The petty squabble between the two Indiana boys only hurt themselves. Newman, who needed a good finish to hold on to any hope of making the Chase for the third consecutive season, wound up 39th. He's now 19th in the points, and an extreme long shot to recover in time to make the playoffs.

Stewart can still get in, but he'll need to be pretty close to flawless the rest of the summer.

His No. 20 Chevrolet has been one of the best cars all year, but three accidents in the past eight races have sent him spiraling from a solid second place in the standings to the outside looking in on the top 10.

And since breaking his shoulder blade in a May accident at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Stewart has just two finishes better than 25th and has grown increasingly frustrated.

"There is nothing we can do about it," he said. "We have a great group of guys here who will do everything they can to get us back out there to do what we can."

But Stewart isn't the only driver in Chase trouble.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was a solid third in the standings, blew an engine on Sunday and plummeted to seventh. A lock to make the Chase a week ago, he's now one more bad finish away from falling out of contention.

Earnhardt isn't worried.

"I've got a good team -- a really, really good team," he said. "I'd feel pressure (to make the Chase) if I was on a mediocre team, but I'm not. I feel like we've got one of the best teams in the garage, and we're still in a good position to finish in the top 10."

Earnhardt's carefree attitude isn't shared across the garage, where many top names could end up locked out of title contention.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who also missed the Chase last year, is currently tied with Greg Biffle for ninth place, and they are only 11 points ahead of Stewart. The standings can change each week, with only 18 points separating the ninth through 12th-place drivers.

"It's really nervous every race," said Biffle, who finished second in the Chase last year. "All these guys ranked seventh through 13th are on pins and needles. The reality is there's not margin for error."

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