Stewart: Regular-season champ should be honored

LOUDON, N.H. (AP) - Tony Stewart isn't complaining about the way NASCAR resets the points when the Chase for the championship starts.

The two-time series champion knows the rules are the rules and besides, he won his second title during the second year of the Chase in 2005.

But after dominating the regular season, Stewart admits he'd like something - anything really - for his efforts besides a spot behind top-seeded Mark Martin when the 10-race chase begins on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Martin starts the Chase with a 10-point cushion over Stewart and Jimmie Johnson based on his series-high four wins this year.

"I think there should be a $1 million bonus to be leading the points, and not just because it's us," said Stewart. "I think there should be something. It doesn't upset me that the points get upset, but I do think there should be a reward for the team that is leading after 26 weeks. That's an accomplishment."

The idea of honoring the regular-season winner isn't new.

NASCAR chairman Brian France said two years ago he was willing to explore the idea of rewarding the driver who is leading the points at the end of the 26th race of the season. Those comments came after Jeff Gordon built a lead of more than 300 points during the 2007 regular season, but lost all of it when the field was reset for the Chase.

Stewart clinched his Chase spot weeks ago and spent the last two months biding his time until the Chase started. If there was something else out there for teams to shoot for during the regular season, it might make for better racing.

"It gives them something to compete for," he said. "I mean, once you get locked in, what else is there to compete for besides those 10 bonus points? You'd have something to race for, some sort of reward. I don't necessarily think it has to be rewarded during the Chase. I think something that rewards you for that anytime is fine."


VULNERABLE HENDRICK? Is NASCAR's super team showing signs of weakness?

Though three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammates and fellow Chasers Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin have combined for eight wins this season, a Hendrick driver hasn't reached Victory Lane since Johnson won at Indianapolis in July.

Chase rookie Brian Vickers, a former Hendrick driver, said he's not sure if Hendrick is slipping so much as other teams are catching up.

"I think they're a little off here and there but I think a lot of teams have gotten better," Vickers said. "The dominance Hendrick had with the COT the first couple years is starting to wane."

Denny Hamlin, arguably the hottest driver heading into the Chase, believes his Joe Gibbs Racing team has made significant inroads on Hendrick this season.

"We've gained on them by 50 percent since the start of the year in a lot of different areas," he said. "Our engines have gotten a little bit better, our chassis have gotten a little bit better. Yeah, I think we're heading in the right direction. ... It's tough when you're on top like those guys are to stay on top, but they've been able to do it for the last five years."


BIFFLE'S BAD LUCK: Greg Biffle is hoping a return to one of his favorite tracks ends a string of bad luck.

The Chase contender was in New York during a media tour when a security guard at a hotel mistakenly tried to knock down the door to Biffle's room in the middle of the night, startling the admittedly jittery driver.

Then on Friday a gas fixture leaked at his brand new house in North Carolina, sparking an explosion that did considerable damage to the house's exterior. Biffle moved into the house less than two weeks ago.

No one was injured, though his pet-sitter and dogs were shaken up.

"Yeah, it definitely could have been worse," he said. "Gas leaks are very dangerous, but it was on the outside of the house so that was a positive."

He's hoping the news on the track will be better. Biffle qualified 22nd for Sunday's race. He won here last fall and followed it up with another win in Kansas on his way to a surprising third-place finish in the Chase. Though Roush Fenway Racing has struggled this year - picking up just two wins - he's eager to start the clean slate driving in the Chase provides.

"It feels really good to start over," he said. "There's so much pressure to get in this thing and now that we're in it, just go for it and get the best finishes we can and try to get the points lead."


LABONTE LIVES: Bobby Labonte will be racing on Sunday after all.

The 2000 series champion, who qualified eighth driving the No. 71 Chevrolet for TRG Motorsports, said there was a chance that he'd have to start the race and then park his car due to financial concerns. He didn't get the green light for the weekend until receiving an e-mail from TRG owner Kevin Buckler early Saturday morning.

"I thought we'd be all right, but it makes for a better story if you don't know," Labonte said with a laugh.

Labonte said he didn't know where the backing came from, but exhaled all the same.

"I said today if I thought we couldn't run the whole race I wouldn't even have practiced," he said. "I probably would have just watched a movie. I don't have it in my vocabulary not to run."

Instead the 45-year-old spent the day preparing for his 571st consecutive Cup start. He posted the eighth-fastest time during the first practice, but slipped to 33rd fastest in the second session.

The race will be Labonte's second for TRG after Yates Racing replaced him in the No. 96 Ford with Erik Darnell two weeks ago in Atlanta. Labonte will drive the No. 96 for a handful of races as part of Hall of Fame Racing's partnership with Yates.


TEAMWORK? Though Kyle Busch graciously declared he would do whatever it takes to help Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin win the title after his own bid to make the Chase came up just short, Hamlin isn't expecting too much assistance.

"Maybe if he's running right in front of me, he'll let me have a spot or something," Hamlin said. "I doubt he's going to take out the guys I need him to take out. But I think he'll have some scores to settle with guys that I don't think he'll be too shy about doing now."


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