Stewart, Johnson lock up place in the "Chase"

NASCAR Nextel Cup point leader Tony Stewart and second place Jimmie Johnson both locked a place in the 2005 Chase for the Championship with strong runs at Michigan on Sunday. Both drivers earned top-10 finishes mathematically clinching a place in...

NASCAR Nextel Cup point leader Tony Stewart and second place Jimmie Johnson both locked a place in the 2005 Chase for the Championship with strong runs at Michigan on Sunday. Both drivers earned top-10 finishes mathematically clinching a place in the championship field.

Stewart finished fifth and has a healthy 126-point lead over Johnson. Both drivers, however, do have to start each of the next three races to remain eligible.

"To start 36th and end up in the top-five is a pretty good day, I'd say," Stewart said. "That's (fuel strategy) part of racing. It's frustrating to a certain degree, but like I said, you can't not smile when you come out of here with a top-five finish.

"I'm excited that we're going to be in it. I'm excited that we're in a position where we're locked in already."

Johnson had to start at the rear of the field on Sunday after an engine change but clearly had a superior ride. The team had surmised that he was a lap short on fuel, but instead of gambling Johnson pitted the car for gas with 10 to go and earned 10th.

"I'm definitely not happy with a 10th place today," Johnson commented. "We were sitting fourth before that thing cycled out and some guys gambled, some guys two-tired and fuel only and we just made the wrong decision, wrong strategy.

"We were very fast at the end and we were making up a lot of ground but we just couldn't overcome what was going on on pit road. But, great day, great racecar. Chad's (Knaus, crew chief) worked real hard to find some new stuff and I really think this is a start of things to come."

Even though he was less than thrilled with the result, it was still a relief to Johnson that he has secured a spot in the Chase.

"It's comforting to know to at least be in the top 10 in points," Johnson said. "It's a testament to these guys to clinch it with three (races) to go. I'm excited for it and it just means we've had a great season. We shouldn't be ashamed of anything."

Spots three through ten remain a toss-up with just three races remaining to determine the field for the Chase. Jeremy Mayfield's win bumped him up one spot to sixth as Carl Edwards top-10 run propelled him to ninth.

The field is sketchy from ninth through 14th with just 138 points separating contenders. Dale Jarrett sits 11th, 51 markers away from tenth place Jamie McMurray. Lurking in the shadows are Jeff Gordon (-624) in 12th, Elliott Sadler (-632) in 13th and Kevin Harvick (-648) in 14th.

Another disastrous run for Sadler over the weekend does not bode well for him to repeat a Chase spot this year.

"I don't know what to say," Sadler commented on his wreck. "I think my worst nightmare has come true. I've put us in a position where we've got to win the next couple of races to try and get into the chase. My guys are doing a great job of giving me good racecars. I don't know what I'm doing as a driver to mess up so many times."

NASCAR's favorite son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., also has little hope of competing for the title this season. Earnhardt finished 18th and slipped to 16th in points, a crushing 724 points behind. There is little to no possibility that Earnhardt would mathematically be able to leapfrog over five drivers to make tenth.

"It's damn frustrating," said Earnhardt of his day at Michigan. "I hate fuel mileage races where the fastest car doesn't win. We had a car that at a couple of points in the race was nearly perfect. It seemed like there were only a few laps when I wasn't racing with somebody.

"That's a helluva lotta fun to run three-wide with a lot of these guys, but it leaves you with a sick feeling knowing that once you make that last stop, you're just hoping the guys in front of you keep running out of gas."

Bristol, California and Richmond are the three events left before the Chase field is set.

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Jeremy Mayfield , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray , Carl Edwards , Elliott Sadler