‘Smoke’ keeps fire go­ing

Baltimore Sun - - VARSITY -

ad­vance to the next three­r­ace round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup play­offs. He faces elim­i­na­tion this week­end in Dover, Del., where the field will be whit­tled from 16 to 12.

Ste­wart is more than a bub­ble boy, ranked 15th and 11 points out of 12th place.

He ei­ther needs to win at Dover or fin­ish in the top 5 and hope that some of the guys in front of him have a bad day.

And that’s ask­ing a lot, con­sid­er­ing his av­er­age fin­ish in the last six races is 26.3.

Ste­wart found some great mojo in the reg­u­lar sea­son, hold­ing off Denny Ham­lin for a dra­matic victory at Sonoma, end­ing an 84-race victory drought. But it’s been down­hill since then, es­pe­cially with a 16th-place fin­ishat Chicagoland fol­lowed by a 23rd-place run at New Hamp­shire on Sun­day.

Ste­wart did have a nice take­away from New Hamp­shire, where track of­fi­cials hon­ored him with a 7,000-pound gran­ite stone high­light­ing his five ca­reer NASCAR and IndyCar vic­to­ries at the track.

No doubt he was one of the sen­ti­men­tal picks among his peers, although you could prob­a­bly count out Ryan New­man among those wish­ing Tony good luck (see Rich­mond race).

“He’s al­ways been feisty,” Chase qual­i­fier Jim­mie John­son said a few weeks back. “There’s been more speed in his car, which has been good to see. That’s led to some more feisti­ness, I guess. But that win in Sonoma, that was a cool mo­ment. I think ev­ery­body here can talk to the feel­ings they had see­ing him win. I know I was way happy for him.

“You know, he has that in there. He can do it. We watched him win half the races in one Chase and be­come the cham­pion. Af­ter that I learned not to count him out.”

One last shot re­mains to stay in this thing.

Were Ste­wart to rally to win the cham­pi­onship, it would be his fourth Cup ti­tle, a nice cherry to top a Hall of Fame ca­reer.

“I want to be there at the end,” he said at the start of the Chase. “I’m not wor­ried about lead­ing laps and all that. The first seg­ment, you got al­most half of the field in this. You’re not go­ing to win the cham­pi­onship in this first seg­ment, but you can sure take your­self out of an op­por­tu­nity to win it.

“It’s, ‘Don’t make mis­takes. Don’t make mis­takes. Be solid.’ ”

It has not worked out that way. On­ward to Dover, to see if Ste­wart is still smokin’ by the end of Sun­day’s race.

KENA KRUTSINGER/GETTY

Dover (Del.) In­ter­na­tional Speed­way Sun­day, 2 p.m. TV: NBC Sports Network Tony Ste­wart, who will re­tire af­ter the sea­son, needs a win or some help this week­end to make the Chase’s fi­nal 12.

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