DOVER, Del. — Tony Stewart needs a tremendous rally at Dover to keep his perfect Chase season alive.
Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet has not performed like the car that romped to victories in the first two races of Sprint Cup's Chase for the Championship. He was horrible at practice and that carried over into Saturday's qualifying, where he turned a lap of 156.760 mph and will start the third Chase race 27 spots behind pole-sitter Martin Truex.
Stewart's two wins have only given him a seven-point cushion over Kevin Harvick entering today's race. With four Chase drivers starting in the top six here, this could be the race where the standings get rattled.
Stewart had little explanation for his struggles, other than saying his car was tight.
History shows all is not lost for him. He started 27th in the second Dover race in 2000 and won. In the first Dover race in 2009, he finished second after starting 31st. If any driver knows how to work his way through traffic, it's Stewart.
Truex, meanwhile, returned to the site of his only career Cup win and turned a lap of 159.004 mph to win the pole for today's AAA 400. He crashed the Chase party with his first pole of the season. He won his only career Cup race in 2007 at the Monster Mile.
"I love this place," Truex said. "I feel like I understand what it takes to get around this place. I've just been fortunate enough to have good race cars here."
Truex, from nearby Mayetta, N.J., has long considered Dover his home track and has two of his six career poles here. But with only eight top 10s this year and sitting 18th in the points standings, Truex is looking for something to feel good about in a mostly lost season. "I can't really put my finger on it," he said.
Chase driver Kurt Busch qualified second. Paul Menard was third. Chase drivers Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson took the next three spots.
Like Stewart, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon also struggled during qualifying and starts 34th. Denny Hamlin, all but out of contention, starts 11th. Brad Keselowski was 15th, Matt Kenseth 18th, Ryan Newman 20th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 21st, and Harvick starts 22nd.
Round 3 of the Chase promises to create some separation among the contenders and pretenders.
Gordon is in fifth place and a manageable 23 points behind Stewart. His poor start might not help him move up the standings.
Kurt Busch is 28 points out in ninth place. He's counting on his strong qualifying start to serve as a preview for what's ahead in the 400-mile race.
"We definitely look at where the Chase guys qualify," Busch said. "You race your own race and let it pan out. You can't worry too early on in the race. Once you get to the final two pits stops, that's when you're looking at the other Chase guys."
Stewart has taken up residence in Victory Lane this Chase, with wins at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
He has found it hard to keep it up at Dover. He was 41st in Friday's final practice session, topping out at 150.735 mph, and his team couldn't fix whatever ailed the No. 14 in time for qualifying.
"We'll see what happens (today)," Stewart said.
Today could be the perfect day for Johnson, the five-time defending champion, to position himself as a contender. He has six career victories on the concrete track and won the race here last September. Johnson has a 9.6 average finish in 19 career Cup starts at Dover.
He's stuck in an un-Johnson-like 10th place, 29 points behind Stewart.
"In these first two races, we've had much better cars than where we've finished and it just didn't work out for us," Johnson said. "But that's racing. Anything can and will happen, and we've got to make sure it doesn't happen this weekend."