HARTFORD Stewart in enviable position
The 33-year-old driver is a strong contender to make the "Chase for the Cup."
By JOHN BASSETTI
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
HARTFORD -- It was a collection of four NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers: Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney, Kyle Petty and Ken Schrader.
It was also a collection of one with a shining season and one with a shattered season.
Of the quartet that appeared at Sharon Speedway for an autograph session Saturday evening, Stewart, is, by far, in the most enviable position.
The 2002 Winston Cup champion is currently fourth in the Nextel Cup Series.
Blaney, on the other hand, just had his season fall through following the recent decision by the Richard Childress Racing team to put Jeff Burton in Blaney's seat of the No. 30 AOL Chevrolet.
Where they stand
While Stewart is a strong contender to make the "Chase for the Cup," the other three are out of contention.
After 22 of 36 races in 2004, Petty (31st), Schrader (32nd) and Blaney (35th) are mathematically eliminated.
Heading into today's GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan Speedway, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are ahead of Stewart.
Under NASCAR's old points system, at this point, it would be a four-way fight with Johnson and Gordon in control and Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart in the hunt.
Under the revamped system, only the top 10 drivers after 26 races, plus any other drivers within 400 points of the leader, will vie for the title in a 10-race "Chase."
When the "playoffs" begin Sept. 19 in New Hampshire, the 10-plus will be mathematically bunched up so that only 50 points separate positions 1-10 in five-point increments.
During Saturday's appearance to benefit the Victory Junction Gang Camp, Stewart said the new system isn't reason to adopt a conservative approach.
No slacking off
"You've still got to figure out how to win races each week because, if you can't win races in those last 10, you aren't going to win a championship that way," Stewart said of any inference that slacking off in the next four races wouldn't hurt.
"You go out every week and try to win each race. If you win races, the points take care of themselves. We have 14 races left. There's still quite a bit of racing to go."
Asking Stewart, 33, to take it easy isn't part of his competitive nature.
He finished seventh in 2003.
Blaney, whose season got a boost when he joined Childress in early July, is trying to cope with his latest predicament.
"We're just hanging out for awhile," Blaney said at Saturday's session at the track he co-owns. "We're pretty certain we'll put something good together for next year. We'll just have to wait. It'll be awhile."
Was he shocked at being dropped by RCR?
"Not really. They told me ahead of time that could happen."
Blaney was 28th in points in 2003 before his 2004 season that was fractured by lack of sponsorship and team-switching.
The season hasn't been kind to Petty, either.
"Not too good," he said. "We kind of struggled this year. All we can hope is to have some top five and top 10 finishes. The Cheerios Dodge [of teammate Jeff Green] and my Georgia Pacific Dodge have been getting better."
Petty, who was 37th in 2003, said, "We spotted them too many points and too much stuff at the beginning of the year, so it's a long way to get caught up."
Schrader's season is better than last year when he finished 36th.
"I can't complain about that," the 44-year-old said. "Last year was a really bad year, so we keep picking it up a little bit at a time."