By Dustin Long
September 20, 2011

Kevin Harvick doesn't believe it. Neither does Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief Steve Letarte. Tony Stewart not a title contender? Yet, that's what Stewart stated just before NASCAR's title Chase began.

"That's pretty funny that he counts himself out,'' Harvick said after finishing second to Stewart in Monday's rain-delayed race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Letarte called Stewart a "master of deflection.''

Maybe that explains Stewart's actions Thursday in Chicago. After he said seven of the 12 Chase drivers were legitimate title contenders, I asked him who they were. He declined to name them at first but later grabbed one of my pens and a sheet of paper that had the Chase drivers listed and put marks next to the drivers he thought could win the crown.

He did not choose Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and himself.

Some will call Stewart's ploy brilliant. He keeps the pressure off his inconsistent team -- which nearly won four races early in the season but struggled at times during the summer -- by keeping them out of the spotlight. Just one of the many head games drivers are trying to play, some will say.

Then again, maybe this was a true, unvarnished moment from Stewart, whose passion and candor lead him to say things others wouldn't.

What's true now is that many see Stewart as a title threat after his win Monday. Of course, these are many of the same people who listed Jeff Gordon as a favorite to win the Chase only days ago.

Stewart hasn't proven anything yet. To call him a true title threat is premature and smacks of bandwagon jumping. He's merely taken advantage of the new Chase schedule.

For the first time since the Chase's inception in 2004, it began at a track other than New Hampshire -- now the second race in the Chase. That change provided the perfect tonic for Stewart.

Despite being winless in the first 26 races, Stewart had been strongest on the 1.5-mile-and-up tracks this season. His late charge two weeks ago earned him a third-place finish at Atlanta, a similar-sized track. He had scored four consecutive top-10s at Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile track, before Monday. So, it's not surprising he won.

The series heads to New Hampshire this weekend. Stewart finished second to teammate Ryan Newman there in July and nearly won the fall race last year before running out of fuel about a mile from the finish.

It wouldn't be surprising to see Stewart leave New Hampshire with the points lead. Yet, that wouldn't prove he's a true threat for the title.

Even he admitted as much last week when I asked if the first two races could hide his deficiencies at the third race of the Chase at Dover. "I'm worried about Dover. We were absolutely terrible at Dover in the spring. We could get off to a strong start and that might be able to carry us a little bit momentum-wise ... I'm not sure it's enough to get done what we've got to get done.''

Stewart finished 29th at Dover in May battling an ill-handling car. That's not the only Chase track that should concern Stewart fans. He finished 34th at Martinsville in April. He fought his car's handling, was penalized for a restart violation and broke a rear-end gear.

So, that's 20 percent of the Chase where Stewart faces major questions. That doesn't even factor in the potential chaos at Talladega and how the newly repaved Phoenix track could become the biggest wild card in the Chase.

"One day doesn't change the whole season,'' Stewart said after his win. "We've got nine more hard weeks.''

He's not alone.

He entered the Chase as the driver most likely to end Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign. After Monday's race, Gordon is 11th in the standings, 25 points behind Harvick, the series leader.

The points are not as much an issue for Gordon. With nine races left, he needs to finish three spots ahead of Harvick each week to outscore him. The bigger problem is that Gordon has to pass 10 drivers to win the championship.

Miscues, misfortune and other woes in the next couple of months will likely bring some of those drivers ahead of Gordon back to him. He can't expect all of them to run that way, though. A few will finish in the top 10 weekly, making it difficult for Gordon to gain ground.

At this point, Gordon can't afford any more problems in the Chase. The car can't handle as poorly as it did Monday. Running out of fuel and then speeding on pit road on the last lap doomed him to a 24th-place finish -- his worst result in close to five months. Those mistakes can't be repeated.

Gordon has shown he can post consecutive top-10 runs, but he'll have to do more now. He'll need at least one win and maybe two to challenge for the title. At least he has nine races to recover. While some will count Gordon out, it's too early to do so.

He took the biggest drop in the points, falling to ninth after he ran out of fuel and had to pit at the end, finishing 22nd.

Busch's struggles in the Chase are unreal given how good he has been in the regular season. In his four previous Chase appearances, he finished 10th, fifth, 10th and eighth.

What makes Busch's title hopes seem more desperate is that he's struggled at New Hampshire. He has said repeatedly that's the track that's key for him in the Chase.

"That's a crapshoot race for us,'' Busch said.

If he struggles at New Hampshire, he'll be looked upon as a pretender and another shot at that elusive Cup title will be gone.

He was a title-worthy candidate few considered before the Chase.

Told that Stewart didn't list him as a title contender, Kenseth said: "That's all right. I don't want to be picked as one of the favorites.''

His path to the title became harder after NASCAR penalized him for being assisted on the track on the last lap Monday. Kenseth ran out of fuel and J.J. Yeley pushed him for a portion of the lap. While Kenseth crossed the line eighth, series officials placed him 21st, following the rule book's guidelines that when a driver is assisted in such a manner on the last lap, they are not scored for that lap. With the top 20 cars finishing on the lead lap, Kenseth was placed behind all of them.

The 13 points lost as result of the penalty could prove painful as the Chase progresses, but in Kenseth's favor is how fast his car has been this year, particularly on the 1.5-mile tracks. His two wins this season (Dover and Texas) came on tracks in the Chase. So, although he's 10th in the standings, 24 points behind Harvick, it's too early to count him out.

His third-place finish was his best result since placing second in June at Kansas, also a fuel-mileage race.

Earnhardt made his move late but did spend much of the race outside the top 10. He talked before this weekend of needing to make changes with his setups and trying to be more aggressive now that the team is in the Chase.

"I think we made huge gains this weekend,'' said Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief, who added that the team never had track position during the race. "I asked him during the race if some of the platform issues we've been fighting are gone and he said they were. ''

That's a good sign for Earnhardt fans, looking for him to be as competitive as he was early in the season when he nearly won at Martinsville and Charlotte.

"I felt like we would do well in the Chase,'' Earnhardt said.

Time to prove it.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found at here.

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