It was his second win of the 2006 season, and it pushed him to fifth in the championship standings. Little did he know that hot summer night atop the flag stand would be his crowning achievement of the year.
Disastrous finishes in the next two races dropped Stewart to 11th in the standings with only seven races to recover. It was too big of a hole and Stewart stunningly became the first defending NASCAR champion to miss the cut for the Chase for the championship in what was then a 10-driver field.
Now here we are, seven years later, and another defending champion is in a similar hole.
Brad Keselowski heads into Saturday night’s race at Daytona ranked 13th in the standings and winless this year. He’s got nine races left to claim a berth in the 12-driver field, and is among a handful of elite drivers jockeying for the final few spots in the Chase:
• Keselowski: BK had three wins at this point last season but finds himself on the outside looking in after Sunday’s disappointment at Kentucky, where he had hoped to repeat last year’s victory. His problems Sunday started 48 laps in the race – so early that Keselowski said “there is no reason to drive like an animal”– when Kurt Busch drove on the apron, then shot back up the track into traffic and into Keselowski.
It created a messy accident that stopped the race for nearly 20 minutes and it dropped Keselowski four spots in the standings to 13th. To earn a Chase berth, he either needs to be ranked inside the top 10 in points, or needs wins to be eligible to claim one of two wild card spots.
There is an upside to Keselowski’s situation. He is only 14 points behind 10th-place driver Joey Logano, his Penske Racing teammate. That’s not bad considering the No. 2 team has been docked 31 points this year in a pair of NASCAR penalties. If Keselowski still had those points he’d be ranked eighth.
• Busch: The 2004 champion is in decent shape at 14th in the standings and only 16 points out of 10th. He’s gotten there behind four finishes of seventh or better in the past six races, including Sunday, when he managed to come back from the early incident on the apron to finish sixth. All told, Busch has seven top-10 finishes this season and has climbed from six spots in the standings in three races.
“We came through when we needed to and had another good points day,” Busch said. “We’re creeping up in the points and need to avoid major slips in the next nine races.”
• Stewart: The three-time champion won at Dover in June and that victory is enough to make him eligible for a wild-card berth.
But his situation is shaky because he’s tied with Aric Almirola for 16th in the standings and he could find himself locked out. It’s a real possibility considering Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle, who have one win each, aren’t securely inside the top 10 and Kasey Kahne is 11th with just one victory.
• Denny Hamlin: He’s never missed the Chase since his 2006 rookie season, but time is running out on Hamlin’s comeback story this year.
In fairness, a compression fracture in a vertebra in his lower back sidelined him for four races and likely cost him any chance at the Chase, anyway. But he returned determined to grab a wild-card. He finished second at Darlington in his first full race back, then won the pole at Charlotte and finished fourth to go from 31st in points to 24th.
He’s 25th in points and must win over the next nine weeks to keep his Chase hopes going.
At this stage, it will likely take him at least two wins to make it happen.
Team owner Joe Gibbs dismissed talk of Hamlin getting out of the car anytime soon to fully heal, insisting the goal is to salvage the season.
“I think Denny wants to stay after it and we have a chance to get some wins,” Gibbs said. “Who knows what’s going to happen? We could get hot. I know he’ll be the favorite at several of these race tracks we have down the stretch over these next nine weeks. Who knows? Maybe a miracle in there. You can’t have a great comeback unless you’re behind, so we’ll just go after it and do the best we can. He’s got a good attitude and we’ll keep swinging.”