Dustin Long
Monday July 11th, 2011

In a year of first-time winners and feuding drivers, this season might become best known for the mistakes and misfortune that cost some drivers a chance at a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

With eight races left until the Chase field is set, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer need better performances to avoid missing the Chase.

Stewart enters this weekend's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway two points out of the final guaranteed Chase spot. The two-time champion doesn't need to panic. Of course, had things gone differently earlier this year, he would not be in this situation.

Stewart could have won four of the season's first seven races but didn't. He was second on the final restart at Daytona but finished 13th. A two-tire pit stop put him in the lead at Phoenix until a late caution bunched the field and he fell to seventh. A pit road penalty for dragging an air hose out of his pit box cost him the win at Las Vegas. A pit road speeding penalty late at Texas ruined his chances to win there, too.

Now Stewart heads to a track where in September 2010 he lost the lead two laps from the finish when he ran out of fuel. Maybe this is the weekend his fortune changes.

The lack of wins and inability to lead many laps -- he's led just 60 since late March -- has Stewart frustrated. His assessment of his season before Saturday's race at Kentucky was succinct: "We've had a terrible year. Not been anything like what we've been used to by any means."

He's not the only Cup driver lamenting what could have been.

Earnhardt 's midsummer slump continued at Kentucky. He slid his tires entering pit road on a fuel-only stop late in the race and then blew his left front upon exiting pit road. Earnhardt finished 30th, the fourth consecutive race he's placed 19th or worse.

The Kentucky race hurt more considering the recent problems he's had.

"I hate what happened over the last couple of weeks and I look back with some regrets on how we finished our day in Sonoma [41st-place finish] and what we could have achieved if we had been more patient or tried to take better care of the car," Earnhardt said before Saturday's race.

"You could have done a million different things at Daytona [19th-place finish] and I try not to dwell on that but it's hard. You know you think about it, but what's done is done. You've just kind of got to try to move forward and not let it really bother you too much and try to put together a good weekend."

Although time remains to return to his earlier form, Earnhardt has gone from a driver on the verge of winning his first race in three seasons to one who could be in trouble of falling out of the top 10.

He's eighth in the standings -- but only 21 points ahead of Stewart after his recent struggles. As Earnhardt has dropped in the points, it's made his near victories at Martinsville and the Coca-Cola 600 sting more. Both times Kevin Harvick benefited. Harvick passed Earnhardt for the lead with four laps to go to win at Martinsville. Harvick passed Earnhardt out of the final corner of the final lap at Charlotte when Earnhardt ran out of fuel while leading.

There was also Kansas, where Earnhardt's fuel gamble worked, but he finished second to Brad Keselowski, who also gambled on fuel. That victory could put Keselowski into the Chase if he can climb into the top 20 points. He's three points from that spot.

With a belief among many that two wins should be enough for a wild-card spot in the Chase, those lost opportunities put more pressure on Earnhardt and his team to run well the next couple of months to remain in the top 10 in points.

For Clint Bowyer, the anguish is as great. He came within a few inches of winning at Talladega in April. Instead, he finished second. Even then, he knew what kind of an opportunity he had lost.

"If I would have won right there, it could have put me in the Chase,'' Bowyer said after that race. " I was thinking about that. That's going to be important throughout the year, and you know, that was a good shot at it. It just slipped through our fingers.''

While many have applauded NASCAR for reserving the final two Chase spots for the drivers with the most wins between 11th and 20th in the points, Bowyer is not one of them.

"I'm just not a big fan and I never was,'' he said. "There's a good chance that the best 12 teams aren't going to be in the 12 spots for the Chase."

Then again, it's difficult to determine who the 12 best are. Although points leader Kyle Busch, who won Saturday night at Kentucky, and Harvick each has three victories this season, there isn't that team that strikes fear in others as Jimmie Johnson has in past years.

Carl Edwards comes closest to that driver. He won at Las Vegas and had runner-up finishes in the Daytona 500 and at Bristol and Darlington. He has 10 top-five finishes, which ties Busch in that category, and a series-high 13 top-10s this season.

"When the season started, I thought that Carl [Edwards] had the ability to put that together or a Roush driver,'' Jeff Gordon said of being the sport's dominant team. "Harvick, I think their team has been very strong, but his performance has not been up to maybe what I thought it could be, but, yet, he has three wins. He's been there at the right time. So that is the sign of a good team; that they are in the right place at the right time.

"Then you have the No. 48 [Jimmie Johnson] and the No. 11 [Denny Hamlin] that have been off to a little bit of a slow start. The cool thing about that is there is no clear-cut favorite right now ... which I think makes it very exciting as we get closer and closer to the Chase to see who is going to step up and take control of this championship. I think it is really wide-open right now."

With the several drivers fighting for the last spots in the Chase, any driver that can win now or score several top-five finishes could put themselves in a good position. As the number of races decrease until the Chase field is set, there are fewer chances to overcome mistakes or lost opportunities. The pressure builds for many teams. How they react will determine who makes the Chase.

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