Posted: 11 Sep 2011 07:46 PM PDT
Tony Stewart kept the momentum going from his third-place finish earlier this week at Atlanta Motor Speedway by finishing seventh in Saturday night’s Wonderful Pistachios 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. It was Stewart’s 11th top-10 result of 2011 and his 17th top-10 in 26 career Sprint Cup starts at the .75-mile oval.
The effort secured his presence in the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the seventh time in his career, and he leaves Richmond ninth in the Sprint Cup point standings, only 12 points behind series leader Kyle Busch.
His Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) teammate, Ryan Newman, secured his Chase berth at Atlanta with a 20th-place finish. This marks the second time in three years SHR has placed both its drivers in the Chase. SHR and Penske Racing are the only organizations to place all of its teams in this year’s Chase.
“I’m probably most proud of the fact that we’ve had six opportunities to be in the Chase and we’ve made it five out of the six opportunities,” said Stewart, alluding to the fact that he and Newman made the Chase in 2009 and 2011 while he carried the Chase torch solo for SHR in 2010. “Proud of our organization, proud of everyone at Hendrick Engines and Chassis and just excited about the year that we’ve had. We’re able to sit up here tonight and say we’ve made this thing. I wouldn’t have predicted it halfway through the year with the way our season was going, but real appreciative of our guys who kept their heads up and kept working really hard.”
Richmond was a microcosm of Stewart’s season. Still winless 26 races into the 36-race schedule, Stewart and his team have had to work extremely hard for everything they’ve earned, and Saturday night’s seventh-place effort was no exception.
Stewart started the 400-lap race around the .75-mile oval in 22nd, but worked his way into the top-10 by lap 123. Still, his No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet was a handful at times, pushing through the track’s corners and taking away his forward drive.
The situation appeared dire around lap 225 when Stewart was in 20th and desperately in need of a caution so that crew chief Darian Grubb could tend to his racecar. It came on lap 247 when the caution flag waved for Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson’s dustup in turn two.
The break allowed Stewart to come to pit road for four tires, fuel and a right-rear wedge adjustment, all while leapfrogging many of his competitors who pitted before him under green. As a result, Stewart restarted the race in 11th, and with an Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy much more to his liking, Stewart was able to reassert his presence among the top-10 and rise to seventh by the time the checkered flag dropped.
“Tonight was the best that we’ve run here in a long time,” Stewart said. “I think we ran ninth here in the spring, but it was because we put four tires on at the end. Tonight we were on an even keel with everybody tire-wise and ended up with a solid top-10 run.
“It’s definitely been a good two weeks for us, but we’ve got a long 10-week stretch ahead of us and we’ve got to be better than we’ve been the last 26 weeks. I’m proud of our guys. I mean, our guys have kept their heads up.
“It’s going to be a long 10 weeks, but every Friday when we show up at the track we start with a clean slate and just do the best we can. So, we’ll keep digging.”
Newman, driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet Impala for SHR, finished eighth. It was his 13th top-10 finish of 2011 and his 12th top-10 in 20 career Sprint Cup starts at Richmond.
The last time both SHR drivers finished in the top-10 was in August at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. Newman finished fifth, while Stewart was ninth.
Kevin Harvick won the Wonderful Pistachios 400 to score his 18th career Sprint Cup victory, his fourth of the season and his second at Richmond.
Carl Edwards finished .139 of a second behind Harvick in the runner-up spot, while Jeff Gordon, David Ragan and Kurt Busch rounded out the top-five. Kyle Busch, Stewart, Newman, Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were a record-tying 15 caution periods for 85 laps, with nine drivers failing to finish the 400-lap race.
Richmond marked the last race of the regular season, as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup now begins.
Stewart won the Chase in 2005 – the second year of the format – to collect his second Sprint Cup championship. (Stewart’s first championship came in 2002 under the old NASCAR Winston Cup Series format.)
Newman will make his fourth appearance in the Chase. He finished seventh in his Chase debut in 2004, sixth in 2005 and ninth in 2009.
The top-10 drivers in points are eligible to compete for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup along with two “wild card” drivers – Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin – who were admitted to the Chase field by having the most wins among the drivers who were between 11th and 20th in the standings. NASCAR recalibrated the points for the 12 drivers as soon as the Richmond race was over, with each driver getting 2,000 points. With the exception of the wild-card entrants of Keselowski and Hamlin, drivers also received three bonus points for each of their respective wins during the 26-race regular season. For drivers starting the Chase with identical point totals, their seed was determined by the traditional tiebreaker of best finishes beyond race victories.
Ranked in order of where their bonus points seeded them, the drivers competing for this year’s championship are:
1. Kyle Busch (2,012 points)
2. Kevin Harvick (2,012 points)
3. Jeff Gordon (2,009 points, -3)
4. Matt Kenseth (2,006 points -6)
5. Carl Edwards (2,003 points, -9)
6. Jimmie Johnson (2,003 points, -9)
7. Kurt Busch (2,003 points, -9)
8. Ryan Newman (2,003 points, -9)
9. Tony Stewart (2,000 points, -12)
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2,000 points, -12)
11. Brad Keselowski (2,000 points, -12)
12. Denny Hamlin (2,000 points, -12)
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule – the first race of the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup – is the Sept. 18 Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. The race begins at 2 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with a pre-race show at 1 p.m.