Bill Fleischman: Stewart races to top of the Chase

TONY STEWART'S nickname is "Smoke." Maybe we should add "Sandbag" to his nickname file.

Winless in the season's first 26 NASCAR Sprint Cup races, Stewart has opened the Chase with consecutive victories. He leads Kevin Harvick by seven points entering Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway in Delaware.

Before the Chase, Stewart said he didn't think his team was Chase-worthy. Why the sudden turnaround for the No. 14 Chevrolet team?

"It happened in a week," Stewart said. "We went from five laps down at Bristol to running third at Atlanta the next week. No, you don't see it coming. It's not like we say, 'OK, this is what happened, this is what's wrong, this is what you have to do to fix it.'

"We just had really weird luck this year. There's been races where we just missed it, couldn't get the car happy. There's been races where we've been a top-five, top-three car or winning car, something stupid happened, you finish 15th or 20th, you leave going, 'We missed an opportunity.'

"The potential's been there all year. You wonder when the bad luck string is going to stop. I wish I could say you could predict it. You never know what's going to happen."

After three races this year, Stewart was tied with Kurt Busch for first place in points. Then he drifted to 12th and was in danger of not qualifying for the Chase.

Jeff Burton, for one, isn't surprised by Stewart's impressive Chase start. Talking about Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet, Burton said, "The 39 was outrunning the 14 pretty consistently, but I didn't see that continuing," said Burton, a non-Chaser this year. "Tony is so good that I thought at some point they would swap over. That may be what you're seeing. They've caught the breaks they needed. When you couple skill with a little [good] fortune, you'll have a hard time [beating Stewart]."

While Stewart is enjoying his perch, he knows the Chase is far from over.

"The reality of it is you look at guys that are in the back half of the Chase right now, they're guys that a lot of people expected to be in the top five, top three in the points right now," he said. "It shows that 1 or 2 bad days can put you in a bad spot pretty quick."

Before anyone concedes this year's Chase title to Stewart, let's remember the 2008 experience of Greg Biffle, the only other driver to win the first two Chase races.

Seeded eighth, Biffle won the first two races, at New Hampshire and Dover, then finished third at Kansas, putting him in third place.

Three races later, Biffle was second, but got no higher. Finishes of 11th and 18th in the season's final races left him in third place.

While Stewart is in a reasonably comfortable position, eight Chase races remain. The 11 other Chasers are quality teams that are contenders to win races.

And don't forget the non-Chasers: They aren't just other there for a Sunday drive (remember those?). They want to finish their seasons on positive notes heading into next season.

2012 CUP LINEUP

 As expected, Pocono and Dover again will host two Sprint Cup races next year. Pocono's races are June 10 and Aug. 5. Dover's races are June 3 and Sept. 30, the latter the third race in the Chase.

The major change in the '12 Cup schedule is moving Talladega up two places to fourth (Oct. 7) in the Chase. Talladega is swapping places with Kansas, giving the heartland track 2 extra weeks because of repaving issues.

The season-opening Daytona 500 will be Feb. 26.

RACERS' WIVES AILING

It's been a tough week for racers' wives. Pattie Petty, wife of retired driver and current TV analyst Kyle Petty, said she has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Katie Kenseth, 32, wife of Chaser Matt Kenseth, fractured a shoulder blade when she crashed Monday at Charlotte Motor Speedway during practice for a charity Bandolero series race. Matt rushed to Katie's aid.

Pattie, 60, who said her father also had Parkinson's, is undergoing treatment for the disease.

THIS WEEK'S RACE

AAA 400

Dover International Speedway

Dover, Del.

When: Sunday, 2 p.m.

TV/Radio: ESPN/WNPV (1440-AM)

Race course: 1-mile oval

Race distance: 400 laps

Race forecast: Sunny, low 60s

Last year's winner: Jimmie Johnson

Last year's pole winner: Jimmie Johnson, 155.736 mph

Track qualifying record: Jeremy Mayfield, 161.522 mph (June 2004)

Track facts: Matt Kenseth won the May race at Dover . . . In winning last year's race, Jimmie Johnson led 191 laps, including the last 25. Johnson leads active drivers with six Dover wins . . . Melora Hardin, who plays Jan on "The Office" TV show, will sing the national anthem . . . Other weekend races at Dover: tomorrow, K&N Pro Series, 4:45 p.m.; Saturday: Nationwide Series' OneMain Financial 200, 3:30 p.m.

Wins: Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, 4 each; Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon, 3 each; Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart, 2 each; Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, David Ragan, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, 1 each.

SPRINT CUP CHASE STANDINGS

1. Tony Stewart 2,094

2. Kevin Harvick 2,087

3. Brad Keselowski 2,083

4. Carl Edwards 2,080

5. Jeff Gordon 2,071

6. Kyle Busch 2,068

7. Matt Kenseth 2,068

8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,068

9. Kurt Busch 2,066

10. Jimmie Johnson 2,065

11. Ryan Newman 2,060

12. Denny Hamlin 2,028

Up next: Hollywood Casino 400, Oct. 9, Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, Kan.; 2 p.m.; TV: ESPN; last year's winner: Greg Biffle.