NASCAR: Stewart, Earnhardt stressed

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 9, 2011

Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. ó When Michael McDowell pulled in front of Tony Stewart during Friday’s practice session at Richmond International Raceway, it ruined Stewart’s mock qualifying run, maybe his mood, too.
The two-time NASCAR champion, who finished the practice session 30th on the speed chart, had words with McDowell before heading toward his team debrief. In between was his weekly media briefing, and the temperamental Stewart was just a little testy about his prospects for making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
“The pressure is all the media standing here, we’re doing the same thing we always do every week,” Stewart snapped.
For a guy trying to downplay being under pressure, Stewart sure seemed stressed.
But that’s to be expected heading into Saturday night’s race, the final chance for 14 drivers to lock down the final four spots in the 12-driver field. Under a new wild-card format this season, NASCAR will give the final two Chase berths to drivers ranked outside the top 10 who have the most wins.
Stewart is ranked 10th in points, and should he finish 18th or higher Saturday night, he’ll be just fine. He’ll start 22nd in the race.
But he’s got Brad Keselowski closing quickly on him in the standings, and should Stewart fall outside the top 10, he’ll miss the Chase for the second time since its inception in 2004. The only other time Stewart failed to qualify for the Chase was 2006, the year after his second championship, when he failed to deliver at Richmond with the chance to defend his title.
Where did he finish that night? He was 18th.
So here he is again, his season on the line and his temper running slightly hot.
He wasn’t the only one on edge, either.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. goes into Saturday night ranked ninth in points and needs to only finish 20th or higher to ensure his spot in the Chase. But he’s not been running well for almost three months and the pressure is on NASCAR’s most popular driver to make it back to the Chase for the first time since 2008.
“Whatever happens is going to happen. That is just what you are going to have to live with at the end of the night,” said Earnhardt, who qualified 27th. “We work really hard all year long and I feel good about our program, but it will be disappointing to miss an opportunity to race for the championship if we don’t get in (Saturday) night.”
Earnhardt, by the way, ran 19th at Richmond in May and he has just one top-10 finish over the last 11 races. He’s also stuck in a 118-race losing streak dating to that Chase season.
Getting back into the title hunt could help ease the criticism often directed at Earnhardt, but if his program doesn’t improve, his presence in the Chase won’t be significant.
“My main concern is for us to be more competitive as a team,” Earnhardt said. “It is really frustrating to make the Chase and then not be as competitive as you want to be during those races. That is really all I am thinking about. That is really where my concern lies, where my worry is and what my mind is on.
“Trying to be a better race team, man, because if we are going to be in the Chase you want to put up a good account for yourself. You don’t want to be a guy just taking up a spot in there.”
Across the garage, the one guy who really is under the gun seemed rather relaxed.
Denny Hamlin goes into Saturday night ranked 12th in points and holding tight onto the second wild-card slot. He’s got one win in his pocket and has several different scenarios to get into the Chase. A win would guarantee it, but a good run should be enough.
It doesn’t hurt that Hamlin, who qualified 28th, is the two-time defending race winner, that Richmond is his favorite race track, and that he’s been up on the wheel since a bad day at Michigan three weeks ago dropped him to 14th in the standings. It’s been an abysmal season for Hamlin, who won eight races last year and nearly halted Jimmie Johnson’s run of five consecutive titles.
He’s since had a heart-to-heart talk with crew chief Mike Ford, and his performance the last two races have shown a renewed effort.
So he left the pressure and the stress to the others, and Hamlin came home with only one goal on his mind.
“Winning is everything and we come here with the mindset that we need to win, so we want to do that,” Hamlin said. “These last two years we won this race going into the Chase, it really gave us a lot of good momentum … and it seemed like we had two good Chases in a row because of that.
“I’d like to end the regular season on a good note and not limp in on the last leg.”
Hamlin rarely limps around Richmond, where he has an average finish of 7.45 and has led 1,188 laps in his 11 career starts. His statistics, experience and comfort level gave him the laid-back attitude that Earnhardt and Stewart lacked Friday.
“When I come here, it’s just a different attitude, mentality for the whole race team,” Hamlin said. “I’m fine. I think it’s probably easier on us than it is for the guys that have certain scenarios that have to happen for them to make it. Really, I’m racing this race as if it’s just a normal season race like I have the last few years ó no different.”