RICHMOND, Va. -- Tony Stewart won't repeat as NASCAR's Nextel Cup champion this year.
Kasey Kahne displaced the 2005 season title winner for a berth in the Chase for the Cup last night, in the final race of the regular season.
But Kahne was the strategic star of the evening, with a strong third-place run that moved him from 11th in points going into the race to 10th coming out.
Stewart finished 18th after fighting an ill-handling Chevrolet all evening, and missed making the Chase when he fell to 11th in the standings, just 16 points short of Kahne.
"It's a big letdown, obviously," said Stewart, who'd crashed his primary car during practice on Friday and had to start 40th in the fitful backup car. But he wouldn't blame just this weekend: "It takes 26 race weeks to get to this point."
"I'm very surprised that Tony didn't make it in," said Kahne, who is a close friend of Stewart's. "I never would have thought he would be the one not to make it."
Kahne went into the race as the only driver outside the top 10, the cutoff point for the Chase, with a chance of breaking in.
Stewart was the surprise victim, having come into the race eighth in points, ahead of the seemingly more vulnerable Jeff Burton and Mark Martin. But they both made the Chase. Martin finished fifth and Burton ninth last night.
Martin put Stewart's plight most profoundly.
"Last year's champion, two-time champion Tony Stewart - the greatest race car driver of this era, in my opinion - missed the Chase," Martin said. "I knew that somebody who deserved to be in it wasn't going to make it, and that's unbelievable."
"This is proof," Stewart said, "of how tough this series is, and how tough it is to make the Chase."
In order, now separated by only five points per position as the Chase opens, the field is as follows: Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Harvick, Busch, rookie Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin, Burton, Jeff Gordon and Kahne.
Going into the Chase leading the standings, Kenseth was astounded to realize Stewart - with whom he's had two fender-banging controversies this season - won't be in the hunt.
"I thought for sure he'd compete for the championship again this year," Kenseth said.
Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.
The NASCAR Nextel Cup points standings through 26 of 36 races. The top 10 have qualified for the Chase for the Nextel Cup and had their point totals reset after last night's race. (Note: Previous position in parentheses.)
Rk. Driver Pts. Won 5s 10s
1. M. Kenseth (1) 5050 4 13 16
2. J. Johnson (2) 5045 4 8 18
3. K. Harvick (3) 5040 3 11 14
4. Ky. Busch (5) 5035 1 9 15
5. D. Hamlin (7) 5030 2 4 13
6. Earnhardt Jr. (6) 5025 1 8 12
7. M. Martin (9) 5020 0 6 12
8. J. Burton (10) 5015 0 4 15
9. J. Gordon (4) 5010 2 10 12
10. K. Kahne (11) 5005 5 9 14