Under the Spotlight: Earnhardt, Stewart, Hamlin Enter Chase with Something to Prove

Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
After the race to set the Chase field is over, there is always a celebration and smiles among those who were lucky enough to make it into the top-12 and race their way toward the Sprint Cup. Prior to crossing the finish line in Saturday’s Wonderful Pistachios 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin were feeling anything but wonderful.

Fan favorite, Earnhardt, made the Chase for the first time since 2008, but it didn’t come without a fight. Earnhardt, Stewart and Hamlin all entered Saturday’s race at Richmond unsure if there would be a place for them in the Chase come the end of the race.

For Stewart, the answer became apparent much earlier than for Earnhardt and Hamlin. With no wins this season, the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet was able to avoid wrecking and pulled off a seventh place finish and nabbed the ninth spot in the Chase field.

Hamlin finished ninth and Earnhardt ended up 16th, but the list of what it took to get there is quite long.

On lap 8, Clint Bowyer spun and unable to avoid him, Earnhardt crashed head-on into Bowyer’s No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet, denting Earnhardt’s grill and causing damage to his right front. Earnhardt needed 16 pit stops to fix the damage and three lucky dogs in order to remain on the lead lap.

Hamlin was collected in the same accident while racing for track position after starting from 28th. Hamlin had a total of 17 pit stops although he was able to recover much sooner than Earnhardt after restarting 40th early in the race.

On lap 240 Hamlin entered the top-10 despite dealing with significant damage to his No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota.

"It was nerve-racking," he said. "Every person that could knock us out was running up front at times, and a few were a threat to win all day.''

His ninth-place finish comes after a series of top-10s, which has helped the team to gain momentum in the standings and a win at Michigan in June that helped to secure the second of the two wild card positions.

Earnhardt did not enter Saturday’s race with the same momentum as Hamlin, although he seemed to be much more calm and collected throughout the event.

The driver of the No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet started off the 2011 season starting from the pole in the Daytona 500 and went on to earn several top-10 finishes, but seemed to fall off the second half of the season with 11 finishes of 10th or worse.

Entering what was the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ second visit to Richmond, Earnhardt knew he had to remain ahead of Brad Keselowski in points or otherwise risk the chance of losing his 10th-place position and ultimately a spot in the Chase.

During the race, Keselowski was running in second while Earnhardt was running in the back of the pack; however, this didn’t seem to deter Earnhardt’s confidence in his team.

"I wasn't worried at all," Earnhardt said. "I figured we had all night to fix it. I felt like if we were a good enough team, we'd get the job done."

Although Stewart had a much easier time crossing the finish line than Earnhardt or Hamlin, overall the 2011 season has not been an easy one for Stewart being it's the only winless season of his career.

Last year he had an average start of 13.2 compared to this season’s 19.0. His average finish last season was also slightly higher at 13.2 compared to this year’s 14.2.

Despite not having any victories, Stewart had a consistent season with 11 top-10 finishes, which helped him to earn his ninth-place position in the Chase field.

“I think I'm probably most proud leaving here of Stewart Haas Racing and the fact that we've had six opportunities to be in the Chase and we've made it five out of the six opportunities,” said Stewart. “I wouldn't have predicted it halfway through the year with the way our season was going, but real appreciative our guys have kept their heads up and kept working really hard.”

Despite how they got there or where they currently stand, all three drivers (Stewart, Earnhardt and Hamlin) have something to prove in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Stewart has yet to have win a championship since 2005 and has had statistically the worst season of his career.

Hamlin was the runner-up in last year’s Chase, coming in second to five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. This season shadows in comparison to last season when Hamlin had a career-high eight wins compared to only a single win this year.

Earnhardt might arguably have the most to prove out of any other driver in the series. Often compared to his father, many had high expectations for Earnhardt Jr. when he first entered the sport. Since the start of the Chase in 2004, Earnhardt has made only four appearances with a best finish of fifth, compared to the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. who won seven championships.

"I think my team is good enough to be there,'' Earnhardt said. "Now we have a chance to run for the championship. We'll go see what we can do." The NSCS heads to Chicago next Sunday for the first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Series Championship.
Under the Spotlight: Earnhardt, Stewart, Hamlin Enter Chase with Something to Prove Under the Spotlight: Earnhardt, Stewart, Hamlin Enter Chase with Something to Prove Reviewed by Unknown on Thursday, September 15, 2011 Rating: 5