RICHMOND, Va. — Tony Stewart had a certain expectation of being in play. He did not have any idea of how bad missing the Chase for the Championship would feel.
In September 2006, Stewart had won sprint car and Indy Racing League titles, 26 Sprint Cup races and two Cup crowns, including the one he was defending heading into the Chase cut-off race at Richmond International Speedway. He had been outside the top 10 in points that late in the season just once in his Sprint Cup career.
He entered eighth in points, and though he was just 15 points ahead of 11th place in what was then a 10-driver Chase, he had every right to believe he could be the first to defend a championship at NASCAR's top level since Jeff Gordon in 1998.
But when the ball that was Stewart's No. 20 Chevrolet stopped spinning around the roulette wheel that is Richmond, Stewart had joined Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray as drivers who have lost Chase spots at the final hurdle.
Stewart crashed his car early in practice on Friday. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli could not tweak the backup into shape with no further practices scheduled.
Stewart finished 18th in the race, fell to 11th in points and was replaced in the Chase field by Kahne. Liberated of pressure, Stewart went on to win three Chase races, but that didn't alleviate the frustration of Richmond.
"That was terrible," Stewart said. "(We) went from having a car that was pretty decent and within a 10th (of a second) of where we needed to be to be the best car out there, to all of a sudden crashing it and having to get a backup car out. So that kind of set the tone for the weekend and got everybody on pins and needles, and then the next thing we knew in the race, we couldn't get a handle on it and just missed it.
"At the time it's a feeling of disbelief. To miss the opportunity to run for the championship and make the Chase … we never dreamed as a team that we would ever be in that situation."
But most of the series' top drivers have been in that situation. Matt Kenseth, the 2003 series champ, and two-time defender Jimmie Johnson are alone in qualifying for all four Chases. Johnson has clinched again and Kenseth can secure his spot by finishing 26th today.
The vagaries of the Chase first arose in 2005 when four-time series champ Jeff Gordon, who had finished third the previous season, became a member of the herd trying to stay out of the championship melodrama, and wound up missing the Chase.
"You feel left out," said Jeff Burton, who's safely ensconced in fifth place this year and will contest his third straight Chase. "You feel like something is going on and you're not included in it. It's impossible for you not to feel like that."
Carl Edwards, currently second in the standings, made the Chase in his first full season by finishing 21st at Richmond in 2005. Though he began that year's Chase eighth — and finished it third — it all nearly ended with a mid-race accident at Richmond that could have sent ripples through his then-developing career.
"I think Dale Jarrett was behind me and he was doing everything he could to stop and I was all jacked up and I thought, 'It's over,' " Edwards recalled. "We barely made it through. For me, I saw kind of my whole career flash there because I knew that making it in the Chase and having a good season was going to really help us get a sponsor for the next year. We were still up in the air."
But Richmond doesn't seem to care.
Today's NASCAR races
Sprint Cup: Chevy Rock & Roll 400, 1 p.m., Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, ESPN
Nationwide: Emerson Radio 250, 7 p.m., Richmond, ESPN2
Through 25 of 36 races. The top 12 drivers through 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.
Driver Pts. Back
Kyle Busch* 3,755—
Carl Edwards* 3,547 208
J. Johnson* 3,386 369
D. Earnhardt Jr.* 3,323 432
Jeff Burton* 3,234 521
Greg Biffle 3,159 596
Kevin Harvick 3,132 623
Tony Stewart 3,110 645
Matt Kenseth 3,081 674
Jeff Gordon 3,074 681
Denny Hamlin 3,065 690
Clint Bowyer 2,989 766
David Ragan 2,972 783
Kasey Kahne 2,941 814
* — clinched spot in Chase