Tony Stewart Changes Perspective for Championship Contenders

Shannon BaxterContributor ISeptember 19, 2011

JOLIET, IL - SEPTEMBER 19:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 19, 2011 in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Last year in the first race for the chase, Tony Stewart gambled on fuel mileage and ran out of fuel, losing the race.  This year, Stewart’s success with fuel calculations earned him his first win of the season, ending a 32 race winless streak.  Stewart took the lead four times for 35 laps, holding off points leader Kevin Harvick to win the Geico 400. 

Stewart all but eliminated himself as championship contender on Thursday at Chicagoland's Chase Media Day.  He named seven drivers who he thought could battle for the championship, but did not include himself on that list.  Although, he won the first race in the chase, he knows winning the championship will be a tough battle.

Steward said, ”I feel better about it, obviously. One day doesn’t change the whole season. We’ve got nine more hard weeks, and we have some tracks that have been a struggle. But this gets us off to the right start.”  Stewart's win vaulted him through the Chase standings to second position.

Going into the Chase, most people thought that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be the underdog. He has had an up and down season, almost winning at Martinsville, Charlotte and Kansas, along with eight Top 10 finishes in the first 14 races of the season.  However, the No. 88 team lost momentum and dropped from third place in standings, down to ninth.  In the final 11 races before the Chase, he only had one Top 10 finish, eventually dropping him from third to ninth in standings.

Earnhardt fought hard to make it into the Chase.  He made it clear he didn't want to be a free rider and wanted to make his presence known while in the Chase.  Just one race in and he has a third place finish, sitting fifth in points standings.  Is Earnhardt still an underdog?  I think no.  Earnhardt has his game-face on and wants to win now more than ever.

Kevin Harvick is now your points leader.  Stewart gained seven positions with his win and is now second.  Carl Edwards gained two positions, finishing in fourth position.  Kurt Busch moved up three positions with his sixth place finish.  Earnhardt moved up five positions to fifth in standings after his third place finish.  Brad Keselowski also moved up five positions to fifth place.  Ryan Newman finished the race in eight place, thus moving him up one position to sixth place. 

Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon round out your Top 12.  Johnson finished the race in 10th position, Busch in 22nd, Kenseth in 21st and Gordon in 24th.  Denny Hamlin is the only driver who did not move from his position in the standings, remaining in 12th position.