With the Chase for the 2008 Championship less than seven days away and only 10 races remaining before the countdown to the 2009 season begins, it's time to look back at the first 26 races.
With that in mind, refresh your memory of the saying that sometimes "it's better to be lucky than good."
For Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Stewart, this has been the year of the "Oh So Closes," with races that were in their grasp but managed to slip away.
From the season opening Daytona 500 to the regular season ending Chevy Rock & Roll 400, they've acquired very impressive numbers: 17 top fives, 26 top 10s, and 1,359 laps led between the two of them.
However, it's the win column that has them both frustrated. Only Earnhardt Jr. has a check mark in the win column with Stewart still 0-39 since his victory at Watkins Glen last August.
It seems, though, that all of their struggles or bad luck has come on the tracks that they will encounter over the next 10 weeks, making the chase a perfect time for redemption.
However, sometimes it's better to remember the bad times in order to enjoy the good...
The 50th running of the Daytona 500 had Ryan Newman in victory lane for Roger Penske, but it was Stewart whom he had to pass in order to be there.
Stewart led 16 laps and seemed to be on his way to his first Daytona 500 win before the tag team of Newman and Kurt Busch flew on by on the last lap. Stewart would settle for a third place finish in a race that continues to elude him.
But the disappointment of leading then not seeing the checkered flag first would be a ritual for Stewart, who went out and spanked the competition at the Bristol Motor Speedway in March.
He led a race high 267 laps before contact from Kevin Harvick in turn one ended his day in the 14th position. "I thought I left him plenty of room, but I don't know. I was far enough ahead of him that I didn't see where he hit me or when he hit me. I'm sure somehow it was my fault. I'm just sorry I got in his way," Stewart said.
After the short track in Bristol came an even shorter track in Martinsville, Virginia, where this time it would be Earnhardt Jr. who would led the most laps and not win.
He racked up yet another top 10 finish after once again leading laps at a track that he just can't close the deal at. Tony Stewart's Daytona is Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s Martinsville.
Continuing with the short track theme, let's head to Richmond. Every short track race is exciting, but a short track race under the lights is even better. Earnhardt Jr.'s last win was at Richmond (in 2006 though) and it looked as though that streak was going to end, if he could just click away three more laps. Kyle Busch had other plans.
"Whether it is fair or not, he is going to need some security," Earnhardt said. "I haven't seen the replay, [crew chief Tony Eury, Jr.] said it looked like Kyle got loose underneath me. That happens.
"I wasn't good on the bottom so I moved up to the top to run as good as I could up there. He had been running the bottom, so I figured we would race that out. It got a great run around one and two, and he nearly got by me.
"He gave me room off the outside of two so, I wouldn't say that was intentional going in to three. Because if he had wanted to, he could have just thrown me in the fence off two. We had been racing each other earlier and had no problems. I have done that before. That is what happens if he got loose underneath me."
Busch, on the other hand, was dealing with Jr. Nation saying, "They were going crazy and you see it, but you don't pay attention to it," Busch said.
"I don't know why they were telling me I was No. 1, I was in second place. Clint Bowyer got the lead from me—they were all confused I guess, too many old [Dale Earnhardt] Jr. Budweisers."
With the short tracks behind Stewart and Jr., it was time to return home to NASCAR's backyard and the longest race on the schedule: the Coca-Cola 600. Both Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. were in contention to win until both ran out of luck (and air in their tires).
Earnhardt Jr. led 76 laps before having a right front tire go flat while leading, causing him to slide into the wall. The crew repaired the damage and they were able to fight back to a fifth place finish.
With Earnhardt Jr. now out of contention, Stewart took the helm and led 23 laps and had a five second lead on eventual winner Kasey Kahne before falling victim to his own right front tire problem. He finished 18th.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway is known as the magic mile and it looked like the magic had return to the Home Depot team as Stewart dominated, leading 132 laps and having the race well in control.
That is until Mother Nature decided to take over. With rain approaching, Stewart and a handful of others decided to come down pit road and make their final pit stops to be in good shape when the race restarted.
The problem: a bunch of cars decided not to pit hoping that it poured, which it did. The plan had backfired and the most dominate car in the field only had a 13th place finish to show for their effort.
Earnhardt Jr. meanwhile also took a turn leading 29 laps, and had a top five going until he too decided to pit and was hit by Jamie McMurray. With extensive damage the car was only good enough for a 24th.
On the return trip to Daytona for the Coke Zero 400, hopes were high as both drivers have done very well at the superspeedway. Before the race, Stewart said he wasn't feeling well but still managed to climb aboard the Home Depot Toyota.
Once the race started, it became the Earnhardt Jr. show as he led 51 laps and took the lead whenever he wanted to. Midway through the race, Earnhardt Jr. was in control and cruising, as Stewart couldn't control how his body was feeling.
He would turn the car over to former teammate J.J. Yeley who would bring the 20 car home in 20th position.
As for Earnhardt Jr. he would continue to count down the laps until the final pit stop which set him back in the field, giving way to Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards battling to the end. Another dominant car wasted.
The most important race to the Chase is the last one. That being another return to Richmond. The active winners at Richmond are, you guessed it, Stewart and Earnhardt Jr.
In his career Stewart has three wins and 14 top 10s in 20 starts. Stewart and Richmond are a perfect combination and this past Sunday Stewart almost put another win the Richmond column. After leading for 23 laps, Stewart and Jimmie Johnson battled to the very end of the Chevy Rock & Roll 400, with Johnson coming out the victor and Stewart coming out very frustrated.
As he came down pit road upon the races completion, Stewart radioed his team saying congratulations that's another one we gave away.
“We just couldn’t get by him (Johnson),” said Stewart. “We did everything we could. We raced him clean. We raced him the way he would’ve raced us. I wanted to race him with respect—the way he would me—and we just came up short.
“Obviously, we had a great car. It was a little bit of a guessing game—going between running a night race and a day race—but we actually made our car better all day long.
"Last week (at California), we got to the last two runs of the night and just totally lost the handle on it. So, I was real impressed with our guys and how they were able to rebound from last week.”
Going through the frustration and disappointment makes it that much better to enjoy the good times, when they come, as Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. are hoping for.
It's not to say that they haven't had great years, but they both have to be looking forward to New Hampshire and the Chase as a chance to start over and leave behind the first 26 races. After all, a gold trophy and multi-million dollar check in Homestead will make everything feel a lot better.
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