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NASCAR Stewart is still favored after Chase field is set


Published: Sun, September 11, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.


Five of the 10 drivers making the 10-race runoff are from Jack Roush's stable.
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Tony Stewart was in a good place before the final race to set the field for NASCAR's Chase for the championship, his spot atop the standings secure.
And now that the nine other drivers who will contend for the title have been decided, including five from Jack Roush's stable, Stewart still is the man to beat.
"All of the teams are running good," Greg Biffle said during a post-race interview after teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards completed Roush's five-man entry into the 10-race playoff. "But the 20 car is still better than all of us."
Stewart, the 2002 champion, will have his 185-point lead over Biffle cut to five before this week's race in New Hampshire, but is feeling very good about his team's chances. Stewart is eager to finally get started in the pursuit of another title.
"I've been waiting for next week for quite a long time now," he said. "I'm glad we finally get a chance to get it started and get on with what's really important."
Crashed last year
A year ago, the first stop in the playoffs became essentially the last for Stewart. Taken out by a crash early in the race at Loudon, N.H., he eventually retired after running just 83 of the 400 laps, fell to 10th in the standings and didn't contend.
This time, he goes back to New England riding a hot streak that was already in progress when he dominated at New Hampshire Speedway in July. The victory was one of five for Stewart in the last 12 races, and he's never finished outside the top eight.
"We're pretty happy about that," Stewart said. "We're ready for next week. I don't feel like we're lacking anything or waiting on anything."
The hot streak included one stretch of five victories in seven races, almost unprecedented in the age of multicar teams and big-money sponsorship. It also included a lot of good fortune, something that will need to continue as the Chase begins.
"There are 43 guys who start the race and there's 10 of us in the Chase. You can't control the other 33 guys. They've got a right to race just like everyone else," Stewart said.
"When you're in the top 10 there at the end you've got to protect yourself. You've got to race hard, but you've also got to protect yourself, and that's how you get into the Chase to begin with. It was just an unfortunate deal, but we always knew in the back of our minds that something like that could happen."
Will keep his approach
With the roll he's on, Stewart sees no reason to change his approach.
"These next 10 races are no different than the last 26 of them," he said.
There is one difference -- the Nextel Cup that awaits the winner.
"We've just got to go out and win it and be done with it," he said.
Also making the Chase were Roush's Mark Martin and defending series champion Kurt Busch, who won Saturday night's Chevrolet Rock & amp; Roll 400; Jeremy Mayfield; Ryan Newman; Jimmie Johnson; and Rusty Wallace, who is in his final season of Nextel Cup action.
Jeff Gordon won't be eligible for the championship after faltering yet again in a high-stakes situation. His shot at making the Chase ended midway through the race in a fit of frustration.
"I'm done now," a dejected Gordon radioed to his crew after slapping the wall in a race he had to be nearly flawless in to qualify for the championship hunt. He finished 30th, and is assured his worst points finish since his rookie season.
"It was a disappointing night along with a disappointing season," Gordon said. "Now we can put this behind us and just go on and try to make this a better race team. The bottom line is we're way off and we've got a lot of work to do for next season."


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