Tony Stewart's surprise rise to the top

September, 27, 2011
09/27/11
10:53
AM ET

I've noted it time and time again this season: Every time I think I have all the answers, they keep changing the questions. (A little Roddy Piper, anyone?)

Going into the Chase, you want to find a couple of favorites and a couple you can rule out. Based on Tony Stewart's thoughts following the second Michigan race, it sounded like he was ready to rule himself out, too.

"I'll be perfectly honest ... if we're going to run this bad, it really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase or not," Stewart quipped. "Our stuff is so bad right now that we're wasting one of those top-12 spots."

Was this the infamous anti-jinx? You know, when you don't really think you're out of it, but you say you are to tip fate in your favor?

Regardless of Stewart's opinion, then, he's the man atop the Chase standings a fifth of the way through the Chase.

Smoke rises to the top

With the New Hampshire victory, Stewart became the second driver to win the first two Chase races in a season, joining Greg Biffle in 2008. Biffle didn't win the title, finishing third behind Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, but he did continue to run well, finishing third in the third race.

Stewart has won eight overall Chase races from 2004-11, which is tied with Edwards for the second-most behind Johnson's 19. Three of Stewart's eight wins came in 2006, the only year he didn't make the Chase.

Trivia break! Stewart has eight wins as an owner/driver. Since 1972, who is the only driver with more?

When not to lead

Stewart's reward for back-to-back wins is the points lead. But that's not the place to be two races in.

In the seven prior Chases, no driver has won the title after leading after two races. Each of the past four years, the driver leading after two races ended up finishing second.

In 2005, Johnson led after two races, that being the last year he failed to win the title. That year, Stewart won the Chase.

Trivia break! Where did Johnson finish the Chase in 2005?

It can be done

On Monday's "NASCAR Now," the crew discussed just what can be made up over the final eight races, as Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Johnson are among the drivers 23-29 points behind the leader.

I crunched the numbers and figured out that it can be done.

Three times this season, a driver found himself 29 or more points out of the lead, then was in the points lead within eight races.

Johnson was 33 back, and he led eight races later. Kyle Busch was 37 out and led two later (he also was 60 out five races before) and Kevin Harvick led four races after being 43 out.

Trivia break! Stewart led two laps, tying what driver for fewest laps led in a New Hampshire win?

Power rankings

I wanted to come up with something to rank the strength of the Chase drivers on a race-by-race basis. So I devised 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 Dover.

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

Trivia break answers

1. Richard Petty had 58 wins as an owner/driver after 1972.

2. Johnson finished a career-worst fifth in 2005.

3. Jeff Burton led two laps in a July 1999 win.

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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