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Tony Stewart has another bad night, his third straight, and he no longer has the NASCAR points lead, but he's still upbeat about the title chase

  Whooops! Tony Stewart didn't quite have things going all his way Saturday night at Richmond (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   So after leading the NASCAR tour since late spring and winning the regular season 'title,' Tony Stewart is now suddenly trailing heading into the first race of the playoffs.
   And he's going into the title chase with three straight weeks of problem-filled races.
   No longer having the lead didn't bother Stewart: "It's better than 12th.
   "The system is a good system. It's not devastating to leave here second in the points after leading for so long. We all knew what the system is going in.  It's a fair system.  It's an exciting system.
    "We are right there in striking distance, and if we can put together 10 great weeks, then we will be the champion. 
     "If we don't, then we didn't deserve it."
    Actually Stewart was more concerned about the mistakes he made as a driver in Saturday's Chevy Rock&Roll 400: "I'm kind of like where Jimmie Johnson was  --  I'm disappointed with my effort.  I made mistakes as a driver that I normally cuss people for doing."
    If one of Rick Hendrick's drivers doesn't win this year's title, it will be a surprise, particularly with Kyle Busch not in the chase. No one else has shown the consistent ability to run with the Hendrick-engineered cars.
    While Jimmie Johnson may be the title favorite, teammate Jeff Gordon may give him a hard run.
    "We've had a great year," Gordon says. "We really had to rebound from last year; we just were kind of a non factor. 
    "This year has shown the effort, and the effort has really shown in the results. The first ten races we are were on our game, strong, and had a shot to win some races -- like Texas, which is something I never thought I would do.
    "Then we lost a bit of momentum, and Tony came on strong and Mark (Martin) and Jimmie.  It was a little bit disappointing.
     "But I feel the last five or six races we have really been able to get some things turned around, and I feel we are really well prepared for the next 10 races.
    "And I feel tonight was something that really proved to a lot of people -- including ourselves -- what we are capable of doing.  We had a great, great run…and the best car I've had here in a long time. And as strong as Denny was, for anybody to battle with him is really saying something. And we battled with him a good bit.
   "In the final 10 races a lot is going to happen…."
   Well, mostly probably Jimmie Johnson.
   "Maybe other people view it that way," Johnson says with a laugh, about the target on his rear bumper for the chase. "But I live by the thought that that's last year, and right now Denny won this last race, and at Atlanta it was Kasey, and we haven't won since Indy.
    "And I'm just not in a very good mood, just not happy how I ran tonight."
    But he's won three straight titles and he's going for four. 
    "'That' was last year, and if we take last year's set up to the tracks, we'll run 15th," Johnson says.  "It's what's going on right now.  And nobody has had a clear advantage. 
    "I'm optimistic and feel we have a very good chance. We led a bunch at Michigan and didn't get it done (gas mileage). At Bristol we were fast and had troubles.  Last week (Atlanta) we started off good….
    "We have the speed."
   And here so did winner Denny Hamlin, who will have to carry the freight for car owner Joe Gibbs, because his teammates Joey Logano and Kyle Busch aren't in the playoffs. 
    "The fact he has made a lot of noise shows what he's capable of, and his team," Johnson says of Hamlin's title chances. "They are a very good organization. And Denny is one on the track who has been able to balance aggression and patience.
     "He's going to be very competitive in the chase. 
     "I think you are going to have five or six cars that are really fighting for this thing."
    Hamlin himself, who has never had a great chase during his time on the tour, says he has to be spot-on his game to be able to challenge the Hendrick men. "We are not there, but we are consistent…consistently in the top five," Hamlin says. 
    "Nine times out of 10 we are surrounded by those guys. Obviously they have their stuff figured out, the Stewart and Hendrick cars. It's just a challenge to keep up. 
    "I'll be honest with you: Our cars have really got to be 'on' to challenge them for race wins.  We can run, we can top five them to death…
    "And it seems like here lately our cars have been getting a little bit better.  We are starting to bring better cars to the track.
    "Earlier in the year we were five percent or 10 percent off in just about every area.  I think it's down to about three to five percent. We are making a little head way."




I think Tony and his crew

I think Tony and his crew have a plan behind his latest runs. His poor recent runs seem to coincide with his lock on the chase.
I believe after Tony was locked into the chase, the team started to focus their energies on the cars Tony would be driving in the chase. In other words, give Tony the best cars in the #14 stable for the race to the championship.
The race cars Tony has driven in the last 3 races were good cars, but not up to the caliber of the cars Tony drove earlier in the year. Every team has a few cars like these.
Starting with the race in New Hampshire, we will see Tony running up front, challenging for the wins.

hmmmm, interesting idea. let

hmmmm, interesting idea. let me mull it over. qualifying i think is a point to consider here, and tony got several breaks when it rained out qualifying, remember. like dale jr points out, qualifying up front is very important with these ill-handling cots. (and jr.'s qualifying record, a 22nd place average start, is probably a big part of his problems). check out tony's start-and-finish stats the past several weeks. so maybe you're right, that they're playing with some ideas, experimenting. we should know pretty quickly at loudon this week.

If there were six Hendrick

If there were six Hendrick engines from the engine shop to be installed before the race with four going to the official Hendrick team and two to the Stewart team, I wonder if late in the season if the best engines amongst six very similar engines are evenly distributed. If I was Rick Hendrick, I would want my team to win the championship. Stewart has slipped lately and a couple of less horsepower than before might be contributing.

well, i do remember how rick

well, i do remember how rick helped launch joe gibbs, with engineering support....and how gibbs finally realized he'd have to step it up and do his own engine program (but that did take a while, i seem to recall, before mark cronquist finally got the nod and put that thing in order). i'm sure tony will have to step up with his own engine operation eventually (and, heck, he could probably have his pick right now of the 60 or so engine guys over at petty-gillett who are probably ripe for the picking, with that merger coming. and, hey, looks like mark mcardle is available too, to help run it).

Actually Gibbs had his engine

Actually Gibbs had his engine shop running with John Wilson in 1996 and they won in their first year.

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