By DON COBLE
Morris News Service
BRISTOL, Tenn. — The slowest lap in pole qualifying was the last thing Tony Stewart needed Thursday at the Bristol Motor Speedway.
As the 10th-place driver in the standings, Stewart desperately needed something good to happen in tonight's Irwin Tools Night Race. Starting dead last will make that even more challenging.
With only three races remaining before the Chase for the Championship starts, there isn't any room for mistakes for a handful of drivers who are trying to lock in a top-10 spot in the standings or one of two wild card entries.
Stewart doesn't have a win, so it's imperative he remain in the top 10. With 11th-place Clint Bowyer 16th on the starting grid – and just 24 points behind – Stewart's playoff hopes may depend on whether he rallies during 500 laps of short-track racing. The difference in points based on their starting positions actually would put Bowyer ahead in the standings by seven points.
The green flag is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. (ABC).
There are seven drivers in the playoffs danger zone. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart are holding onto the last two automatic qualifying spots in the points, while Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Paul Menard and David Ragan are lurking to move into the top 10 or wrap up a wild card spot.
Menard and Keselowski helped themselves the most in Friday's qualifying session. They were seventh and eighth, respectively. Ragan, who was 24th, and Stewart created the biggest complication in their championship hopes.
Two wild card spots will be awarded to drivers ranked 11th to 20th with the most wins. Right now four — Keselowski, Hamlin, Menard and Ragan — all are within the top 20 with a win. Keselowski has two wins, which should lock up a wild card, but if he moves into the top 10 it creates a battle between the other three to win again in the next three races or to be ranked highest among the winners.
"It's really, really a lot of pressure and takes away a bit of your focus from that specific race and your ability to go out there and really try and win it," Earnhardt Jr. said after qualifying 22nd. You tend to be a little more cautious than you typically would be in any other situation. So, I would love to get it (a win) out of the way early, but, we're just going to keep trying to do what we can do and control our race car and drive the best we can and see what happens."
While Stewart was the slowest on Friday, his teammate, Ryan Newman, was the fastest. His lap of 122.811 mph was just good enough to beat Carl Edwards at 122.670.
Matt Kenseth will start third, while Jeff Gordon is fourth, Mark Martin is fifth and Jamie McMurray is sixth.
Stewart was 6.414 mph slower than Newman, which may be one reason why he didn't talk after his lap.
"Tony's not a happy guy when he's not in the top 10," Newman said.
Hamlin is another driver who's barely hanging onto a playoff berth. He's got one win in 14th place, but he's easily within reach of Menard or Ragan. And if Stewart or Earnhardt can win during the next three weeks, that could drop him, too.
"I think that every week that leads into the first Chase race, there's going to be more and more pressure, especially if you're going backwards not forward," Hamlin said after qualifying 20th. "I feel like we have a good game plan going forward on how we can improve our program, but it's not something that's going to change overnight. It's just stuff that's going to take a long time to show the changes that we make from here on out."
But like so many other drivers in the playoffs danger zone, Hamlin doesn't have a lot of time to turn things around. Neither does Stewart.