LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman made their first stop in New Hampshire a race to remember.
1-2 start. 1-2 finish.
Do it again this weekend and there’s little doubt the Stewart-Haas Racing teammates will solidify themselves as two of the drivers to beat in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Each Chase weekend, the number of true contenders seems to shrink by a driver or two. Stewart and Newman are both back at one of their strongest tracks and both are coming off outstanding finishes in the Chase opener to position themselves in the thick of the hunt.
Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, had tried to tell anyone who would listen he wasn’t a contender for this year’s championship. He called this season "a miserable year," even though Smoke qualified for the Chase and had three top-10s in the final four races leading up to the 10-race playoff.
Even if his confidence sagged, his team kept the faith.
He opened the Chase with a sensational run at Chicagoland Speedway and won his first race of the season.
So much for not being a contender.
"We’ve got a group of guys that no matter how bad it’s been this year and how low I’ve got with it, they’ve never given up," Stewart said Friday. "They’ve never quit. It defines our organization as far as what our group of people are capable of and they fight to the end.
Last week was a situation that showed that no matter how bad our year has been, this team is not going to give up and this organization’s not giving up."
Stewart shot to second place in the points standings and is a measly seven points behind leader Kevin Harvick. Newman was eighth last week and his seventh-place spot in the standings sees him only 14 points out of first.
"It was a great feeling knowing that we had two cars that were capable of winning," Newman said.
Sounds like the July race at New Hampshire.
Stewart called the dominant trip a "dream weekend" and not even the usually gruff driver had any reason to complain. Stewart-Haas Racing pulled off its first career 1-2 start and finish. Newman won from the pole and Stewart qualified second and finished second.
No set of teammates had started 1-2 and finished 1-2 since the 1989 Daytona 500. The last time teammates qualified 1-2 and finished in the same order was in 1957 at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
"You love coming back here after that," Stewart said.
Both drivers love coming to New Hampshire — bumped this season from leadoff to second in the Chase pecking order — where they’ve enjoyed great success. Stewart has 13 top-fives at New Hampshire and two career victories. Newman has 13 career top-10 finishes and two wins at New Hampshire.
"That does not mean we are going to come back and do the same things we did at the first race, but I feel like we will have a good opportunity," Newman said.
The key is keeping the run going — never a guarantee in the unpredictable NASCAR weekends.
"We’ve had days where we were really good and the next week totally terrible," Stewart said. "It shows that you have to take it a week at a time. I’m not worried about how big of a threat I think I am or anybody else thinks we are."
Oh, he’s a threat.
Even as Stewart discounted his chances, his fellow drivers always knew Smoke was in the pack somewhere lurking, ready to make his move.
For Carl Edwards, it was three races ago at Atlanta, where Stewart turned a 20th-place start into a third-place finish.
"He was just marching forward and I thought, ’Man, they’ve got something here,"’ Edwards said. "I think Tony is obviously a great race car driver. He’s been through championship battles and won them. He’s not going to make mistakes."
Stewart’s only miscue may have been taking himself out of the title picture. And only he knows if there was some gamesmanship involved in those public declarations. There’s no denying the very public results.
"I have felt like if the No. 14 makes the Chase he’s a threat," five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson said.
Even in eighth place in the points standings, Johnson is the driver Stewart, Newman and the other nine drivers in the field all have their sights on. Wresting the championship away from Johnson comes down to near-flawless racing from a driver over the final 10 races.
Stewart knows one win won’t define the 10 races.
"It just means that we are off to a good start for this year’s Chase," he said.