Chase Hasn't Taken Defense out of Strategy; Stewart Has Been Best Driver All Season, but He Hasn't Won in Playoff

Article excerpt

Byline: DON COBLE

HOMESTEAD -- When NASCAR invented the Chase for the Championship, it hoped it would promote more racing by the Nextel Cup Series leader.

It has done the exact opposite.

While Tony Stewart insists he will try to win today's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he knows championships now are a matter of a safer course in the 10-race playoffs. If all he needs is a finish of no worse than ninth in today's main event (3:40 p.m., NBC), he can't be blamed if he puts his Chevrolet on cruise control once he reaches the top 10.

Last year, Kurt Busch won the title with one victory during the Chase. Stewart is trying to win it this year without one victory in the final 10 races.

"The only thing, after watching it for two years, I think it might be a little tweaking -- and I'm not here to say what needs to be done," Stewart said. "But the thing is, through the first nine weeks, I was worrying about having bad luck instead of having of worrying about who is the best that given week and getting the most points. I wasn't as much worried about having a good day as not having a bad day.

"I don't think the championship should be decided on who is worried about having the worst day."

While Stewart has nothing to gain by racing hard today, just about everyone agrees he deserves to be the champion. He's tied with Greg Biffle for the most wins (five), all before the Chase started. He has the most top-five finishes, the most top-10s, and he has led the most laps. He clearly was the best driver during the first 26 races that set the field of 10 drivers in the Chase.

Instead of looking at the good things that set the standings with one race to go, Stewart insists it's more important to look at the bad. His worst finish in the Chase was a 25th at Charlotte, and he only has two finishes outside the top 10.

Second-place Jimmie Johnson has a worst finish of 31st with two outside the top 15; third-place Carl Edwards has a worst finish of 26th with two races outside the top 19; fourth-place Greg Biffle has a worst finish of 27th and three races outside the top 20.

"It would be a travesty if Tony doesn't win a championship," said car owner Jack Roush, who put five other drivers against Stewart in the Chase. "He certainly had the kind of luck going for him that we did in 2003 and 2004, and he's had better performance than I've had in those same years. If he can't win this year, then it's real clear that I should have won the other two, which I'd hate to give them back.

"For Tony realizing all the success he had getting to this level, and with the Gibbs organization being where it is with their technology and teamwork and all the other metrics that go with it, it's their time. Tony is certainly going to be celebrated by me and held up for the champion that he is, and I congratulate him for the prospect of winning two [championships]. I hope that he does."

Johnson's car owner, Rick Hendrick, agreed. He also pointed out that winning suddenly isn't as important in the Chase as avoiding bad finishes. …