Stewart in jeopardy of missing Chase

What a great win Saturday night for David Ragan. If you think about it, what an awesome place to get your very first NASCAR Sprint Cup win, too — at Daytona International Speedway.

The other interesting dynamic is the pressure it puts on the rest of the field.

You have guys out there with one win, which will definitely come into play for one of those highly valued two wild-card spots for the 2011 Chase. What it also does is add even more pressure on the guys such as Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others who don’t have wins yet.

Let’s face it: Dale Jr. has had three rough weekends in a row. His teammate put him in the wall at Michigan, and he finished 21st. He knocked a hole in the radiator at Sonoma and blew a motor. Then, on Saturday night at Daytona, the best he could muster was a 19th-place finish.

Now, sure, Earnhardt is still in the top 10 in points, which would guarantee him a Chase spot. But the reality is he can’t keep having finishes like this or he will be on the outside looking in. Then there is the issue of not having a win yet, which puts him behind all the guys in the top 20 who already have at least one win.

If you were to set the field right now, Denny Hamlin and Ragan would have the two wild-card spots. Yes, Stewart is 12th in points right now, but, as I mentioned earlier, he doesn’t have a win, so Ragan would bump him out of the 2011 Chase.

Brad Keselowski does have a win this year, but for it to come into play for one of the two wild-card spots, he has to get himself into the top 20 in points. Right now, he is on the outside looking in. He, like the others, has nine more races before the Chase field is set and has to move up quickly.

That’s why you keep hearing us stress every week how huge these wins are this year, more than ever. The phrase we used back in February of “if you want to be in, you better go win” is ringing more true every race weekend now.

Also, what I think is really exciting for the fans and our sport, in these first 17 races of 2011, we have had three first-time winners. Taking that a step further, all three of these wins have come at three of our bigger events of the year.

Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. Regan Smith won the Southern 500 at Darlington. And, now, Ragan has won the July race at Daytona.

I still think Earnhardt Jr. will be fine. He is racing well, but he has had three bad finishes in a row. The guys I am worried about are guys like Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Stewart and Greg Biffle. These are the guys who really have to focus on going out and getting a win in the next nine races. Unlike Earnhardt Jr. who is running well, those others guys simply aren’t having great runs.

I know there has been questions come up about Jimmie Johnson on Saturday night. I don’t know the reason why they pitted when they did.

Maybe they had a question about having possibly run over some debris and didn’t want to take a chance on the restart by having a flat tire. I can promise you the last thing on the minds of Johnson or that entire No. 48 team mind was deliberately hanging Earnhardt Jr. out to dry. They all knew that No. 88 car was their best ally.

Saturday night was a lot of fun in Daytona. I know there are still fans out there who haven’t warmed up to this kind of restrictor-plate racing. Let me ask you though, what’s not to like?

For a 400-mile race, we had 50-something lead changes among 27 different drivers. That number of 27 different drivers is a new record for Daytona.

I also think this type of race gives an opportunity to teams and drivers that struggle to make it to the track each week. At races like this, they have a chance, just like the mega-teams, to get up front, lead some laps and get that ever-so valuable television time for their sponsors.

I really like this kind of racing. I hate that fact that in these final 19 races of the 2011 season that we have only one more restrictor-plate race. That will take place at Talladega in October during the 2011 Chase.