Tony Stewart isn't the long shot he was last season.
Stewart, if anything, was a strong favorite this season, because not only is he the defending champion, but he also he went into the Chase with three wins under his belt.
Unfortunately for Smoke, though, he has no chance of winning the Sprint Cup title this season. His bad finish at Talladega knocked him down far enough in points, and now there is no coming back for Stewart.
Why else would he put everything on the line and go for the block at the end of the Talladega race? Stewart knew a top five finish at the least was going to be what he needed to keep him in contention for the Sprint Cup title.
Instead, he finished 23rd and dropped to seventh place in the point standings.
The Opposite of Last Season
Tony Stewart's season has been different from his 2011 season. Last year, Tony came into the Chase as a definite underdog.
“I will be perfectly honest,” Stewart said (via Yahoo Sports), “we’re wasting one of those top-12 spots right now.”
Of course, as we would soon find out, Smoke would turn his season around and go on to win five races in the Chase, and the Sprint Cup title last season.
Looking at Stewart's stats from last season he made progression every week, especially from Week 26 to 27 where he would jump from ninth in points to second.
This season though, has been different. Stewart would go into the Chase with three wins and would hold on to the 10th spot in the points standing. As the season progressed in the Chase, Smoke would make progress from the 25th and 26th weeks, jumping from 10th to third. Unfortunately though, he has slipped further down the point standings since then.
Now, sitting 46 points behind the leader Brad Keselowski, Stewart has no chance of making a comeback, especially with several dominate drivers ahead of him in points.
When the Chase gets underway, the competition tends to toughen up. This year has been no different.
Talladega separated some of the drivers in the chase, especially thanks to Tony and the crash he would cause.
Getting knocked down two places in the point standings is not somewhere Smoke wanted to be. Being 46 points behind the leader makes his situation even worse. Not to mention that if Tony were to make it back up to the top, he would have to place better than drivers like Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.
Can Tony beat some of the top Chase drivers? Sure, Stewart is after all, the defending champion. He would need these drivers to have poor finishes also at this point though, something that doesn't seem possible.
Keselowksi and Johnson, for example, are extremely good on 1.5 mile tracks, four of which are in the last six races in the Chase.
Denny Hamlin has Stewart's old crew chief, and not only has he managed to win one chase race already, Hamlin came into the Chase a strong favorite after winning four races in the regular season.
Then there's Jeff Gordon, who is slowly making his way up to the top of the standings, managing to come in second place at Talladega and jumping four places in the points to sixth place.
Could Tony put on a solid performance for the rest of the Chase? Of course he can, but he needs solid finishes while some of the other chase drivers need to have extremely poor finishes, something that doesn't look like it will happen this year.
There are other issues that are hindering Tony's performance in the chase as well. His new crew chief, Steve Addington, could be one of them. While Addington is a great crew chief, he hasn't yielded the same results in the chase that Darian Grubb did for Stewart in the 2011 season.
Maybe it will take another season before Addington and Stewart really get moving.
Talladega, though, is probably the biggest issue for Stewart. His poor finish there took him out of contention for winning the Sprint Cup title.
Last year, Smoke was the underdog and was able to come up big to win the title. This year, he is not the underdog. It's a lot different having to defend your title instead of risking everything to win it.
Regardless, after his crash at Talladega, Smoke has slipped too far down the point standings to make a comeback. He would have to place higher than several top drivers, and they would also need to have poor finishes in order for Stewart to rise through the ranks again.
Smoke went for it all at 'Dega, and instead of winning big, he ended up giving himself no chance to win the Sprint Cup title this season.