Tony Stewart’s defense of his 2005 championship doesn’t look so bad on paper, and it sure seemed to be soaring during his laborious celebratory fence-climb following his July win at Daytona.
It was his second win of the 2006 season, and it pushed him to fifth in the championship standings. Little did he know that hot summer night atop the flag stand would be his crowning achievement of the year.
Disastrous finishes in the next two races dropped Stewart to 11th in the standings with only seven races to recover. It was too big of a hole, and Stewart stunningly became the first defending NASCAR champion to miss the cut for the Chase for the championship in what was then a 10-driver field.
In true Stewart fashion, he didn’t go out with a whimper: Stewart won three of the 10 Chase races, but wasn’t eligible to challenge Jimmie Johnson in what became the first of Johnson’s five consecutive Sprint Cup titles.
Now here we are, 7 years later, and another defending champion is in a similar hole.
Brad Keselowski heads into Saturday night’s race at Daytona ranked 13th in the standings and winless this year. He’s got nine races left to claim a berth in the 12-driver field, and is among a handful of elite drivers jockeying for the final few spots in the Chase:
Keselowski: BK had three wins at this point last season but finds himself on the outside looking in after Sunday’s disappointment at Kentucky, where he had hoped to repeat last year’s victory. His problems Sunday started 48 laps in the race when Kurt Busch drove into Keselowski, creating a messy accident that stopped the race for nearly 20 minutes. Keselowski four spots in the standings to 13th. To earn a Chase berth, he either needs to be ranked inside the top 10 in points, or needs wins to be eligible to claim one of two wild-card spots.
Kurt Busch: The 2004 champion is in the second year of trying to resurrect a career that fell apart when his anger issues cost him his job at Penske Racing. He’s doing it now with Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team that’s not supposed to challenge for a Chase berth. But Busch is in decent shape at 14th in the standings, and only 16 points out of 10th thanks to four finishes of seventh or better in the last six races.
Stewart: The three-time champion won at Dover last month, and that victory is enough to make him eligible for a wild-card berth. But his situation is shaky, because he’s tied with Aric Almirola for 16th in the standings, and he could find himself locked out. It’s a real possibility, considering Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle, who have one win each, aren’t securely inside the top 10, and Kasey Kahne is 11th with just one victory.
• Denny Hamlin: He’s never missed the Chase since his 2006 rookie season, but time is running out on Hamlin’s comeback story this year.
In fairness, a compression fracture in a vertebra in his lower back sidelined him for four races and likely cost him any chance at the Chase, anyway. But he returned determined to grab a wild-card. He finished second at Darlington in his first full race back, then won the pole at Charlotte and finished fourth to go from 31st in points to 24th.
He won the pole the next week at Dover, but a crash ended his streak of top-five finishes. He was also wrecked at Sonoma, and had a hard hit Sunday at Kentucky. Now he’s 25th in points and must win over the next 9 weeks to keep his Chase hopes going. At this stage, it will likely take him at least two wins to make it happen.
Team owner Joe Gibbs dismissed talk of Hamlin getting out of the car anytime soon to fully heal, insisting the goal is to salvage the season.
“I think Denny wants to stay after it, and we have a chance to get some wins,” Gibbs said. “Who knows what’s going to happen? We could get hot. I know he’ll be the favorite at several of these racetracks we have down the stretch over these next 9 weeks. Who knows? Maybe a miracle in there. You can’t have a great comeback unless you’re behind, so we’ll just go after it and do the best we can. He’s got a good attitude, and we’ll keep swinging.”
Drivers just out of top 12
Points Out of 12th
13. Brad Keselowski 465 -12
14. Kurt Busch 463 -14
15. Paul Menard 459 -18
16. Tony Stewart 457 -20
(tie) Aric Almirola 457 -20
18. Ryan Newman 448 -29
19. Jamie McMurray 437 -40
20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 433 -44
21. Jeff Burton 428 -49