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CUP: Can Stewart Make Another Title Run?

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Tony Stewart proved that winning matters in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

He entered the 10-race playoff last year without a win — and without a lot of confidence. But that all changed at Chicagoland Speedway, where Stewart got his first of five victories in the Chase and sparked his run to his third championship, which he earned with a victory in the season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway.

Can Smoke pull it off again?

Before his fourth-place finish Saturday at Richmond International Raceway, Stewart sounded more like the driver who struggled at the Michigan race in August last year and announced he didn’t believe his Stewart-Haas Racing team deserved to be in the Chase.

Last Friday, when Stewart entered the weekend 10th in the points standings and could muster only the 41st-fastest time on the speed chart in Happy Hour, his tune sounded a bit similar.

“I’m starting to question whether somebody else can drive it better than me at this point in the equation,” Stewart said. “I just can’t get it to do what I want it to do at any point.”

Of course, all the pieces fell into place Saturday. Stewart finished fourth and maintained his 10th-place position in the Chase. After the points were recalculated to include the bonus for his previous three wins, he sits third in the standings — three points behind leader Denny Hamlin.

“Those nine points are huge right now,” said Stewart, who matched Carl Edwards in points last year but won the title in a tiebreaker based to wins. “Nine points doesn't sound like a lot, three points doesn't, but when it came down to it, one point was the biggest you've ever seen in your life.

“It was a big deal for us (at Richmond) to make sure we stayed in the top 10 and make sure we got those bonus points and didn't lose them.”

Certainly, Stewart the team owner also has a lot on his plate right now. The loss of sponsor Office Depot for 2013 and the additional support needed to run Ryan Newman, who was re-signed to a one-year contract last week but still has inventory to fill, will keep Stewart busy over the next few months in addition to his day driving job.

And the Chase field is stout. Hamlin has shown tremendous potential of late with two wins in the past three races. Michael Waltrip Racing has stepped up tremendously. Greg Biffle, who held the points lead for multiple weeks, remains consistent. Jimmie Johnson is always a factor. Stewart believes that any one of the 12 drivers can pull off the championship, including Jeff Gordon, who caught his eye on Saturday.

“You look at the run that Jeff had (at Richmond), raced his way in,” Stewart said. “That's the kind of drive you have to have to win a championship. All 12 guys have a shot, and a good shot, I think.”

And despite Stewart’s tendency for self-deprecation, don’t believe it. In 2011, he showed that anything is possible.

Here are 10 other topics to ponder this week as we enter the Chase:

1. Sponsor woes

If the Sprint Cup Series champ can’t find a sponsor, what does that say for the rest of the garage? Yes, times are tough. Off-track activities for drivers have grown tremendously, particular if the teams have to cater to multiple sponsors and have to keep promising more. At what point will the extra activities start taking a toll on the driver’s duties behind the wheel? We’re about to find out.

2. Taking responsibility

Yes, Kyle Busch’s Chase hopes came down to one decision on whether to pit with rain threatening at Richmond. Crew chief Dave Rogers made the call to stay out. Although Busch vehemently questioned the choice, it was too late to abort. Some might say had the team stepped up during the first 25 races, it would not have come down to Richmond. But it did. And Rogers acknowledged after the race, “One hundred percent my fault.” Hopefully, the mistake will not permanently damage the relationship of Rogers and Busch. The medicine for this crew would be as Chase spoiler — go out and win as many of the final 10 races as the No. 18 team can.

3. Sure bet

Before the season began, did anyone anticipate Michael Waltrip Racing having more teams in the Chase than its well-heeled Toyota competitor Joe Gibbs Racing? That would have been one hell of a prop bet. But kudos to MWR for advancing to the playoffs for the first time since that organization expanded to Sprint Cup in 2007. The commitment MWR made last season to improving its product, along with the addition of vice president of competition Scott Miller, has paid off tremendously.

4. Overlooked

With Gordon’s tremendous comeback and Kyle Busch’s fall at Richmond, Clint Bowyer and the Brian Pattie-led No. 15 MWR team did not receive the kudos they deserved for their win on Sunday morning. For Pattie to build this team from the ground up and Bowyer to bring his passion and drive to the No. 15 has certainly led to a recipe for success. Not to discount the rest of the organization, but in 26 races, this crew doubled MWR’s win total from the first six seasons and became one of the two Waltrip squads to qualify for the Chase. Don’t be surprised if Bowyer pulls off the upset down the stretch.

5. Turn around

All season we’ve been waiting for Richard Childress Racing to show some sign of life with its Sprint Cup program. While Kevin Harvick remains winless on the Cup side, after his victory in the Nationwide Series race at Richmond he spoke of the information exchange between the two programs and how it’s raised the momentum and confidence of the team “at the right time.” When asked whether he and crew chief Gil Martin will continue working together on the No. 29 Cup crew, Harvick replied, “We better be. . . . Things are going a lot better than they were three weeks ago. . . . I feel like we have a good (Chase) plan going in.” Harvick enters the final 10 races of the season ninth in the standings.

6. What next?

Richard Petty Motorsports has endured a series of evolutions the past few years. From Dodge to Ford and now possibly to Chevrolet, it will be curious to see what the organization looks like in 2013. Neither Marcos Ambrose nor Aric Almirola has been signed for next season, and sources say the latter driver won’t be renewed. And Ambrose’s deal could get complicated given Ford’s penchant for the Australian. Stay tuned.

7. Second chances

Don’t be surprised if Elliott Sadler isn’t the only change to the Nationwide Series driver roster at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. We’re hearing Brian Vickers is also headed to JGR to run Nationwide races and continue a partial Sprint Cup schedule between MWR and JGR. Vickers has certainly proven himself worthy of another chance.

8. Girl power

A driver knows she’s gaining ground when passing Denny Hamlin to move into the top five at Richmond has the hometown favorite questioning his decision to continue racing in the Nationwide Series. No, we’re not talking about Danica Patrick. Johanna Long, 20, qualified eighth at Richmond in her 16th Nationwide Series start. She held her own in the top 10 on Friday night until the first pit stop, which mired the No. 70 back in 14th. A cut tire ended her evening after 109 laps, but we’re curious just what Long could accomplish in decent equipment with a solid pit crew. In the meantime, Long has developed an affection for college football — and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. After Long left Richmond, she took in the game at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Saturday.

9. Return of the 'stache

What is Gordon thinking? Is he channeling his inner child by considering reviving his post-pubescent fuzz above his lip? Either way, we hope this is just a passing phase.

10. Morale boost

Twitter can be a great source of inspiration. Take the photo of Sam Hornish Jr. standing on a stage in front of sign that reads “Penske Racing 2012 Employee Appreciation Day.” When it comes to drivers, Hornish has to be one of the most loyal. It’s not surprising that Roger Penske has returned the favor. But after it was announced last week that Joey Logano would drive the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford, one has to wonder whether Hornish wasn’t a tad bit disappointed. No, it wasn’t a surprise that Logano was selected for the ride. However, it’s fair to say that Hornish has brought stability to that squad and after his first full season in the Nationwide Series — where he should have started his stock-car career four years ago — he has maintained a competitive presence. At 33, Hornish still has time to polish his skills. It will be interesting to see if Hornish indeed earns a second chance.