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Stewart Out of the Chase

Defending champion falls out of the top 10 when he finishes 18th at the Rock & Roll 400 and Kahne finishes third. Harvick wins race.

September 10, 2006|Ed Hinton | Orlando Sentinel

RICHMOND, Va. — Tony Stewart won't repeat as NASCAR's Nextel Cup champion this year.

Kasey Kahne displaced the 2005 season title winner for a berth in the Chase Saturday night, in the final race of regular season.

Kevin Harvick outdueled Kyle Busch on the last lap to win the Chevy Rock & Roll 400. Both comfortably made the playoffs, which begin Sunday at Loudon, N.H.

But Kahne was the strategic star of the evening, with a strong third-place run that moved him from 11th in points entering the race to 10th coming out.

Stewart finished 18th after fighting a bad-handling Chevrolet all race, and missed making the Chase when he fell to 11th in the standings, only 16 points behind of Kahne.

"It's a big letdown, obviously," said Stewart, who'd crashed his primary car during practice on Friday and had to start 40th in the fitful backup car. But he wouldn't blame just this weekend: "It takes 26 race weeks to get to this point."

"I'm very surprised that Tony didn't make it in," said Kahne, who is a close friend of Stewart. "I never would have thought he would be the one not to make it."

Kahne went into the race as the only driver outside the top 10, the cutoff point for the Chase, with a chance of breaking in.

Stewart was the surprise victim, having entered the race eighth in points, ahead of the seemingly more vulnerable Jeff Burton and Mark Martin. But they both made the Chase. Martin finished sixth and Burton ninth Saturday night.

Martin put Stewart's plight most profoundly.

"Last year's champion, two-time champion Tony Stewart -- the greatest race car driver of this era, in my opinion -- missed the Chase," Martin said.

"I knew that somebody who deserved to be in it wasn't going to make it, and that's unbelievable."

"This is proof," Stewart said, "of how tough this series is, and how tough it is to make the Chase."

In order, separated by only five points per position as the Chase opens, the field is as follows: Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Harvick, Busch, rookie Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin, Burton, Gordon and Kahne.

Entering the Chase leading the standings, Kenseth was astounded to realize Stewart -- with whom he's had two fender-banging controversies this season -- won't be in the hunt.

"I thought for sure he'd compete for the championship again this year," Kenseth said. "When you think of championships, you think of Tony being in it."

Kahne was "just relieved" to get in, he said. "I had so many things to think about if I didn't make it."

Kahne's tenuous points status entering the race was a paradox, in that he has won more races this season, five, than anyone else on the tour. He'd been hurt in points by intermittent bad finishes.

His situation this weekend prompted several drivers, including Gordon, Earnhardt and Burton, to appeal publicly to NASCAR to reward winning more next year -- to weight the points for race wins more, and to guarantee that the driver with the most victories in a season would make the Chase, regardless of points. NASCAR officials indicated they're considering adjustments for next season.

Meanwhile, "I couldn't be happier," Kahne said. "I raced the entire race. With about 15 laps to go, I realized I wasn't going to get second place, so from there it was a matter of bringing it home in one piece."

Gordon and Earnhardt, NASCAR's two biggest names, missed the Chase last year, but Stewart expanded the household names to the Big Three by winning the title. This time, it had appeared for weeks that all three of NASCAR's top stars would be in the playoffs.

"I can absolutely sympathize with Tony -- we experienced what that was like last year," Gordon said. But Gordon had more of a cushion, and made the Chase despite plummeting from fourth to ninth in the standings in one race.

During the race, "I didn't realize Tony was the one out," Kahne said. "I thought he was running better than that."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Chase

A glance at the 10 drivers competing in NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup championship, in order of points standings:

MATT KENSETH

* Adjusted Chase Points: 5,050; Hometown: Cambridge, Wis.; Age: 34

* Car: No. 17 DeWalt Tools Ford; Crew Chief: Robbie Reiser

* Outlook: Kenseth, the driver many believe forced the Chase format because of his lackluster 2003 title run, has momentum on his side as he tries to win a championship under the new system. He has four wins and has turned it up entering the Chase.

JIMMIE JOHNSON

* Adjusted Chase Points: 5,045; Hometown: El Cajon, Calif.; Age: 30

* Car: No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet; Crew Chief: Chad Knaus

* Outlook: Johnson, who has four wins, led the points for most of the year. A perpetual title contender, he's hoping this is the season he finally finishes the job.

KEVIN HARVICK

* Adjusted Chase Points: 5,040; Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.; Age: 30

* Car: No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet; Crew Chief: Todd Berrier

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