Tony Stewart shakes up Chase standings

September, 20, 2011
09/20/11
1:59
PM ET

Ryan McGee tweeted it best when he wrote: "If the Chase is really a microcosm of the regular season, of course we'd start with a fuel mileage race."

Only instead of an upset winner, we had Tony Stewart, who had a strong car all race.

It started the Chase in a topsy-turvy way. Of the bottom four drivers in points entering Chicago, three had top-5 finishes. Of the top four drivers in points entering Chicago, three finished outside the top 20.

For those who finished outside the top 10, that might be their only chance at a slip-up over the next few months. In each of the past two years, Jimmie Johnson won the title with nine top-10 finishes. In the two years before that, it took a mere eight top-10s.

Plus, with the new points system punishing poor finishes more severely than before, it puts drivers in a hole. Denny Hamlin, 41 back, is about a full race behind after the Chase opener.

Another year, another win

Last year, it took 25 races for Stewart to register his first win. This year, he got there in 27. But Stewart just finds a way to win.

This is his 13th straight season with a win, the longest streak since Jeff Gordon won a race in 14 straight from 1994-2007.

What makes Stewart's streak remarkable is that he's never gone a season without winning a race, something that no driver with that many Cup seasons can say.

Trivia break! What two drivers hold the modern-era record for most consecutive years with a win?

Forty wins the hard way

Stewart is the 17th driver to 40 Cup wins, the fourth full-time active driver to reach the mark, joining Gordon, Johnson and Mark Martin.

It's a new age in NASCAR, one in which more drivers win regularly than in the past, so take this note with an asterisk:

Stewart got his 40th win in his 455th start, the second-most starts needed to reach 40 wins in Cup history. The only driver to take more is Martin, who needed 749.

Trivia break! Before Martin and Stewart, who needed the most starts to reach 40 wins?

Sixteen and counting ...

Stewart was the 16th winner this season in just 27 Cup races. You know I love variety.

The 27 races is tied for the third-fastest to 16 different winners in Cup history, trailing only 2003 (25) and 1961 (26).

Trivia break! In 2003, who was that 16th different winner in the 25th race? Hint: It happened in the Southern 500.

Power Rankings

I wanted a way to rank the strength of the Chase drivers on a race-by-race basis. So I came up with my own little nerdy formula, using recent performance this season, along with recent performance at the specific track.

Remember, this isn't for the Chase as a whole, only heading into New Hampshire.

1. Kurt Busch
2. Jeff Gordon
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Tony Stewart
5. Carl Edwards
6. Ryan Newman
7. Kevin Harvick
8. Denny Hamlin
9. Kyle Busch
10. Brad Keselowski
11. Matt Kenseth
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Trivia break answers

1. Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace both won races in 16 straight seasons.

2. Bill Elliott needed 430 starts to reach 40 wins.

3. Terry Labonte was the 16th different winner in 2003.

Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.

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