Column: Tony Stewart on the ropes in final NASCAR Chase
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Well, this isn't the way anyone wanted to see Tony Stewart end his career. The driver went into NASCAR's playoffs with a roar and is on the verge of exiting with a whimper.
Stewart is in the bottom four of the Chase standings and will be eliminated Sunday at Dover International Speedway if he doesn't pull off some sort of miracle before the field is trimmed from 16 to 12 drivers. He's retiring at the end of this season, and all his fans wanted to see a solid run toward a fourth NASCAR title.
Instead, he opened the playoffs with a 16th-place finish at Chicago and he was 23rd on Sunday at New Hampshire. Chris Buescher is the only driver below him in the standings, and Stewart might just need to win at Dover to advance to the second round.
Kevin Harvick, who won at New Hampshire to earn an automatic berth into the second round, isn't counting out his teammate. With Harvick secure and Kurt Busch 11th in the standings, Stewart-Haas Racing can put an emphasis on Stewart's performance at Dover.
''He can go to any racetrack and perform. He can go to any racetrack and win,'' Harvick said. ''He's Tony Stewart. I wouldn't bet against him. We'll do everything we can to help him get to the point where he needs to be to try to move on.''
This is hardly the position anyone thought Stewart would be in a month ago, when his fiery side began to emerge as the Chase approached. He wrecked Brian Scott at Darlington, wrecked Ryan Newman at Richmond and seemed to be in no mood to play around over the final 10 races of his NASCAR career.
But he's not performing on the track, not at the level to race for a championship, at least, and that's got to change Sunday or he will close his career watching the playoffs go on without him. Stewart has not finished higher than 16th in the last six races, and his average finish is 26.3 over that span.
He has three career wins at Dover, the last during his 2013 march to the title. But his average finish of 14.1 won't get it done.
Who else could be eliminated on Sunday? A list:
If you filled out a Chase bracket, you almost certainly had Buescher eliminated in the first round. He barely made the Chase, needing to cling to 30th in the standings to be eligible, and his Front Row Motorsports team just isn't equipped to compete with the big dogs. Buescher was 28th at Chicago, 30th at New Hampshire and is last in the 16-driver Chase field.
If it rains on Sunday, and he uses strategy to stay out and inherit the lead before the race is canceled, then he's got a shot at avoiding elimination. That is, after all, how he won Pocono to get into the Chase.
He is 14th in the standings, and that's a bit of a surprise because the Chip Ganassi Racing cars had been strong headed into the Chase. McMurray was eliminated in the first round last year, and believed his team had learned enough to make it through this opening three-race stretch. But there's no room at all for error in the Chase, and a 19th-place finish at New Hampshire simply isn't good enough.
Ganassi teammate Kyle Larson, who many thought would go deep into the playoffs, isn't secure, either. He's 12th in the standings - only five points ahead of the elimination spot.
He is tied with McMurray in the standings and trails Larson by five points for the transfer spot. Not because he's been bad in the Chase, but because he's been mediocre through the first two races.
Dillon was 14th in the opener, 16th at New Hampshire and doesn't have a top-10 finish in six weeks. His New Hampshire race was a struggle, but Dillon felt his Richard Childress Racing team persevered and has hope for Dover.
''I never gave in, never gave up, our team never gave up,'' he said. ''We go to Dover and we've given ourselves a shot. We've just got to go run good there.''
EVERYONE BESIDES HARVICK AND MARTIN TRUEX JR
A win gets a driver an automatic berth to the second round, and Harvick and Truex have each punched those tickets.
But the standings are so close throughout the rest of the field that a mechanical problem, a crash or simply ailed strategy could end the Chase for any driver. Only six points separate fifth-place Joey Logano from 11th-place Kurt Busch and no one is feeling all that safe. Chase Elliott is ninth in points and finished third at Chicago, but he's hardly breathing easy.
When asked what he expects from Dover, he was blunt: ''I feel like it's an upcoming race and we need to do a better job.''