Two weeks into this year’s Chase, it appeared Tony Stewart had all but buried his chances at a third NASCAR title. Despite leading nearly 100 laps in the playoff opener at Loudon, Stewart gambled on fuel and lost, running out as he led the field to the white flag lap. Dropping to 10th in the standings, Smoke was immediately put in a back-against-the-wall position to make up lost ground at Dover. However, more self-inflicted setbacks – a poorly timed two-tire call and a pit road speeding penalty – resulted in a 21st-place finish and a further drop behind the leader.
Two weeks later, Stewart is coming off his second win of the year and second straight top-5 finish. Up five spots in the Chase to fifth, the former champion sits 107 points behind Jimmie Johnson and has quickly reemerged as a serious contender for the title.
Following his poor performance in the first two Chase races, Stewart and his Darian Grubb-led team shifted into an all-or-nothing mentality, and based on their performances at Kansas and Fontana, it has paid off.
“We have nothing to lose and everything to gain, really,” Stewart said prior to the Kansas race. “It is a situation that I wish we could say that we were right in the middle of (the Chase) and had to worry about everything. In two weeks, I have dug myself a pretty big hole. It’s literally a go-for-broke attitude. We don’t have anything to lose right now. Tenth doesn’t mean anything to me in the point standings. I’m going for everything I can get right now.”
It’s tantalizing for Stewart and Co. to wonder what might have been. According to our own Tom Bowles’ article earlier this week on SI.com, had Stewart’s gas mileage gamble paid off, not only would he have two victories four races into the Chase, he would also be only 13 points behind Johnson for the top spot. The pressure he’d be putting on the reigning four-time champ would be immense; instead, he’ll spend the rest of this Chase fighting hard from back in the pack.
This two-time champ’s response to adversity, though, has been admirable. Instead of being downtrodden and frustrated, Stewart responded with a fourth-place finish and a win, gained 55 points in two weeks and is now within striking distance of the championship lead. With six races remaining, he is now heading to some of his better tracks – with a total of eight wins at Charlotte, Martinsville, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead.
In 2006, when Stewart missed out on the 10-man Chase, he went on to win three postseason races – Kansas, Atlanta (no longer in the 10-race sprint) and Texas. He also scored a fourth-place finish at Martinsville that same year. In 2007, he had one top-5 and three top-10s in the final seven races. In 2008, he won the much-controversial race with Regan Smith at Talladega, after which he scored only one other top 10 – at the season finale in Homestead.
Last season, Stewart entered the Chase after holding the points lead for the majority of the regular season. Four races into the Chase, Stewart was coming off a win at Kansas and a fifth-place finish in Fontana. Fourth in the Chase standings, the driver of the No. 14 was only 84 points out of the lead.
But that’s when the bottom fell out. With a smaller margin to the leader at the same point of the season last year, Stewart was collected in a wreck at Talladega (finishing 35th) and had less than stellar runs in the final two races at Phoenix (25th) and Homestead (22nd). In the end, those three runs proved to be his Achilles’ Heel, resulting in a sixth-place finish overall in the final Chase standings. Since winning the title in 2005, that’s the highest points position he’s earned the past four seasons.
This year, Stewart has the same opportunity to become a Chase contender – but the pattern is clear. Over the final six races, he has to shake off the rust he’s experienced since his last title run and learn to finish strong once again.
While successful over the years, Stewart will have to improve upon his average finish at the remaining six tracks if he wants to truly contend for the championship. Feast or famine just won’t cut it, as breaking it down, Stewart has an average finish of 13.4 at Charlotte, 12.6 at Martinsville, 14.8 at Talladega, 13.4 at Texas, 11.7 at Phoenix, and 12.8 at Homestead. These types of results will not lead to a title-contending run, especially with the level of competition happening now in the Cup Series.
Judging only by this season and last, Stewart’s best opportunities to move up the standings come at Martinsville, Talladega, and Texas. While he is a past winner at each of the tracks remaining in the Chase, Stewart has finished outside the top-10 since 2007 at Charlotte (aside from his 2009 All-Star Race win), failed to finish inside the top 20 in three out of the last four races at Phoenix and has only one top 10 in the last five races at Homestead.
But numbers on paper can sometimes mean little compared to a much harder statistic to measure: off-track momentum. Fresh off announcing the addition of Mobil 1 as a sponsor for his No. 14 Chevrolet in 2011, Stewart appears as confident as ever moving forward in the Chase. With a good group of guys focused on the ultimate goal, secure with their future, Stewart-Haas Racing could be in the thick of this championship battle within the next few weeks.
“You’re always going to think about what could have been, but we’ve got to go into every week planning to get maximum points, lead every lap and win the race, and after that we’ll just see what else happens,” said crew chief Darian Grubb. “If we do our job and execute, that’s all we can ask for.”
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