Fryer’s Five: Stewart steps out of ‘Twilight Zone’

Somewhat overlooked in Jeff Gordon’s longest career losing streak – which now stands at 54 races – was the fact that Tony Stewart was himself mired in a 31-race winless drought. But as the calendar flipped into the steamy summer months, just about everyone expected Smoke to rise in time to throw himself into the championship mix.

Only it took until the eve of Labor Day, the symbolic end of summer, for Stewart to finally make his way into victory lane. He did it Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he became the first driver-owner to win since Richard Petty in 1977.

“God, I’ve never been so happy to win in my life,” he said after climbing from his No. 14 Chevrolet.

Tony Stewart and Darian Grubb embrace after claiming their first win of the season.

OK, so that’s probably overstating his emotions, but the victory certainly has the potential to be a critical turning point for Stewart.

It was only three months ago that the driver revealed his Stewart-Haas Racing team was “in the Twilight Zone,” and an early slump had left him and crew chief Darian Grubb “confused with what’s going on and why it’s going on.”

A few weeks later came Old Spice’s unrelated announcement to end its sponsorship with Stewart at the end of this season, a business decision that has forced Stewart-the-owner to search for additional funding for his car at a time when he’s still trying to find sponsorship for teammate Ryan Newman.

Although his performance picked up dramatically come June – it always does – the wins didn’t come. Before Sunday night, Stewart had three top-three finishes and 10 top-10s in a 13-race stretch since Pocono at the beginning of June.

The win, his first since Oct. 4, 2009, at Kansas, finally came in a race in which he struggled with restarts but nailed the final one to pull away from Carl Edwards.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve been in victory lane,” said Stewart, who has now won at least one race in each of his 12 NASCAR seasons.

All followers of Stewart know he’s one of the streakiest drivers in Sprint Cup, and this win could be just what he needed to start the run toward a third championship. Had the Chase started last weekend, he would have been in a tie for last in the seeding at a 50-point deficit to leaders Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

Now, he’s going to be seeded at least sixth and only trailing the leaders by 40 points. But he can cut into that even more Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, where he’s a three-time winner.

Four months ago, that wouldn’t have been likely. Stewart was terrible at Richmond in May, finishing 23rd and a lap down to the winner. Days later he made the “Twilight Zone” assessment. Clearly he and Grubb have come a long way since then, and momentum is the best medicine for any team.

Since this entire season has been marked by the swings of a handful of drivers, it would be no surprise if Stewart now becomes the driver du jour.

What else happened in Atlanta?:

1. Carl Edwards likes his title chances:

Edwards won a series-high nine races in 2008. But he’s not been back to victory lane in a Sprint Cup race since. So it was a little surprising to hear him say after Sunday night’s runner-up finish: “We’re better set to go race for that championship now than we’ve ever been.”

Edwards even referenced 2008 in his declaration, and on the surface, it’s startling to think he’s in better shape today than he was when he nearly chased down Johnson that year by winning three of the final four races.

There have been moments since that stretch of dominance in which Edwards and all of Roush Fenway Racing seemed absolutely lost. And with just six top-10 finishes through the first 17 races this season, Edwards seemed pretty far from a championship contender.

Except something has clearly clicked with that team dating back to when the No. 99 crew turned to Kasey Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis for help in early July. Edwards has seven top-10s in the last eight races, including four top-three finishes.

He’s still winless, though, and will spot the leaders up to 40 points if he doesn’t snap his 61-race winless streak in Richmond. However, no matter where he starts the Chase, he likes his chances.

“I feel like we have scored a ton of points the last seven or eight races,” he said. “We have performed probably better in that stretch than we ever have, and it makes me really excited. I’m really looking forward to the Chase. It’s going to be fun.”

2. Ten drivers are locked into the Chase:

Sunday night, Jimmie Johnson was one of eight drivers to clinch a spot in the 2010 Chase. Johnson remains the only driver to qualify for the Chase every year.

There will be very little suspense in Richmond now that 10 drivers have nailed down spots in the Chase, leaving just two up for grabs, and really only one considering all Greg Biffle needs to do is finish 42nd at Richmond and he’s in.

Among those who can gamble and go for the win and bonus points Saturday night are Harvick, Gordon, Kyle Busch, Stewart, Edwards, Jeff Burton, Johnson, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.

That leaves four or so drivers vying for the final spot, but realistically all Clint Bowyer has to do is avoid catastrophe and he’ll wrap up his slot in the 10-race championship. Bowyer, in 12th place, has a 117-point margin over Ryan Newman, the next closest driver in the standings.

It’s hardly what NASCAR had in mind when it devised the Chase and made the build-up into Richmond a focal point of the season. And when the field was expanded from 10 drivers to 12, the suspense was supposed to be amped up even more.

Instead, Saturday night will be about drivers looking for a little momentum headed into the Chase, while Biffle and Bowyer will likely opt for nice, safe, smooth runs that don’t jeopardize their positions.

Just how much that lack of drama will play into viewership remains to be seen. Will you still watch? Do you still care?

3. Denny Hamlin better stay away from the casinos for now:

Doesn’t matter how good his car may be, the preseason favorite has absolutely no luck right now. He started from the pole at Atlanta, swapped the lead with Stewart 10 different times and led 74 laps while establishing himself as the early driver to beat.

Then his engine went kaput.

The result was a 43rd-place finish – his third finish of 34th or worse in the last four races. A five-time winner already this season, Hamlin hasn’t done much since his last win at Michigan in June. In the 10 races since, he has just three top-10s and a string of bad races.

The bad news is that limping into the Chase won’t win anyone a title.

The good news is he has one final shot to turn it around, at Richmond, his home track and site of a massive turnaround last season. When Hamlin finally broke through last fall for his first win in front of the local crowd, he took that surge of momentum into the Chase and emerged as a more confident contender.

Reliability and driver error ultimately made it impossible for him to go neck-and-neck with Johnson for the full 10 weeks.

He’s got one week to turn it around, and is trying to focus on what’s ahead instead of what has happened.

“We seem to find all the bad luck in Joe Gibbs Racing,” Hamlin said. “It’s a 50-50 day. We can look at the negative, and we blew up. But we brought our best car to the track and pretended it was a Chase race. I was just pacing myself, having fun and racing with Tony.

“I’m going to leave with the 50 percent that I’m going to stay positive. If we can just keep it together, we can really win this championship legitimately. I’m just happy there’s only one more race where we can lose points. My team deserves better. We know in two weeks when things reset, we’ll be on the positive side of things.”

4. Rick Hendrick gave Lance McGrew the vote of confidence:

And then a collective groan was heard throughout JR Nation.

Hendrick said last weekend that he isn’t anticipating making any changes to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew, which means McGrew will likely go into next season as the crew chief of the beleaguered No. 88 team. It’s a public affirmation that Hendrick had to make to stop the speculation about his plans for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

Rick Hendrick gave a vote of confidence to the pairing of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Lance McGrew.

But the move certainly won’t sit well with Earnhardt’s rabid fans, who never seem satisfied with the poor guy given the crew-chief job. The same people calling for Tony Eury Jr. to be reinstated were the same people ready to tar and feather him 15 months ago. And now that McGrew has failed to get Earnhardt into victory lane or the Chase, it’s his turn to be cast as the scapegoat.

Last month, I called for Hendrick to move Alan Gustafson over to Earnhardt’s team. The suggestion, I reasoned, solved several problems: It created an opening for Kenny Francis to eventually be paired with Kasey Kahne in the No. 5; it moved one of the most talented crew chiefs in the industry to the driver most in need of some help; and it appeased – at least temporarily – the frustrated masses.

I went forward with the suggestion even though the folks at Hendrick Motorsports had assured me moving Gustafson to the 88 team had never even been discussed (which I don’t really believe, since “never” is a pretty strong word).

That being said, no move is really the best move for Hendrick. How many changes can he possibly make for Earnhardt? And how many rebuilds can the driver possibly weather? Every personnel move leads to a period of adjustment, and giving Earnhardt a new crew chief is more or less throwing away any equity he’s built with McGrew over the last 15 months.

“I’m actually pretty happy with the chemistry there now,” Hendrick said. “Maybe some of you guys don’t agree. But I’m around them in the shop every week, I’m in the Tuesday [debrief] meetings, I talk to Dale and I talk to Lance and I’ve talked to them both after they’ve been testing.”

I still believe Earnhardt is a good driver and McGrew is a quality crew chief. I’d argue that Earnhardt’s difficulties aren’t singular this season, and all of HMS has been up-and-down most of the year. Like Earnhardt, Martin also will miss the Chase, and Johnson is the only one of the four HMS drivers with a win this season.

Sticking with McGrew at least gives Earnhardt an opportunity to continue chipping away toward forward progress, regardless of what JR Nation believes is best for their driver.

5. Walmart appears out for Jeff Gordon:

Hendrick also revealed over the weekend that talks with retail giant Walmart had ended and there won’t be a sponsorship deal for Gordon, who won’t have Dupont as his primary sponsor next season.

“You talk to a lot of people, and they were someone we talked to,” Hendrick said. “We got down the road a bit, but timing is one of those things – possibly we’ll do something down the road with them but it won’t be next year.”

So now it becomes a question of who will be paired with Gordon. It’s pretty unbelievable to think he’s this far down the road without something significant lined up to replace Dupont. And the fact remains that there aren’t a ton of companies right now looking to spend the cash it would take to be aligned with Gordon. So what could be next? An increased role for Pepsi, perhaps?

It’s not clear what Hendrick has up his sleeve, but the team owner didn’t sound worried about Gordon when he announced an increased role for Quaker State next year on the No. 5 car.

“It feels better today than it did in the first half of ’09, and that’s encouraging to see,” he said. “There are a lot of people talking and things happening. They’re not looking backward anymore, they’re looking forward.”

Jenna Fryer covers NASCAR for The Associated Press and is a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports. Follow her on Twitter. Send Jenna a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Sep 6, 2010