THE FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM Enlarge
Tony Stewart's defense of his 2005 championship doesn't look so bad on paper, and it sure seemed to be soaring during his laborious celebratory fence-climb following his July win at Daytona.
It was his second win of the 2006 season, and it pushed him to fifth in the championship standings. Little did he know that hot summer night atop the flag stand would be his crowning achievement of the year.
Disastrous finishes in the next two races dropped Stewart to 11th in the standings with only seven races to recover. It was too big of a hole, and Stewart stunningly became the first defending NASCAR champion to miss the cut for the Chase for the championship in what was then a 10-driver field.
In true Stewart fashion, he didn't go out with a whimper: Stewart won three of the 10 Chase races, but wasn't eligible to challenge Jimmie Johnson in what became the first of Johnson's five consecutive Sprint Cup titles.
Seven years later, another defending champion is in a similar hole.
Brad Keselowski heads into Saturday night's race at Daytona ranked 13th in the standings and winless this year. He's got nine races left to claim a berth in the 12-driver field, and is among a handful of elite drivers jockeying for the final few spots in the Chase:
■ Keselowski: BK had three wins at this point last season but finds himself on the outside looking in after Sunday's disappointment at Kentucky, where he had hoped to repeat last year's victory. His problems Sunday started 48 laps in the race — so early that Keselowski said "there is no reason to drive like an animal" — when Kurt Busch drove on the apron, then shot back up the track into traffic and into Keselowski.
It created a messy accident, and it dropped Keselowski four spots in the standings.
■ Busch: The 2004 champion is in the second year of trying to resurrect a career that fell apart when his anger issues cost him his job at Penske Racing. He's doing it now with Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team that's not supposed to challenge for a Chase berth. But Busch is in decent shape at 14th in the standings and only 16 points out of 10th.
■ Stewart: The three-time champion won at Dover last month and that victory is enough to make him eligible for a wild-card.
But his situation is shaky because he's tied with Aric Almirola for 16th in the standings, and he could find himself locked out. It's a real possibility considering Martin Truex, Jr., and Greg Biffle, who have one win each, aren't securely inside the top 10 and Kasey Kahne is 11th with just one victory.
■ Denny Hamlin: He's never missed the Chase since his 2006 rookie season, but time is running out on Hamlin's comeback story this year. He finished second at Darlington, then won the pole at Charlotte and finished fourth to go from 31st in points to 24th.
- Vickers recovered, ready to return to Daytona
- NASCAR opens 2016 season without 2 of its biggest stars