Did You Notice? … Five races into the 2016 season the door is still wide open for Tony Stewart to make the Chase? Certainly, there’s a lot that would have to happen; the three-time Sprint Cup champion isn’t even expected to return to the series until May. The sabbatical leaves him out for about 12 races after experiencing a fractured vertebrae during an off-road incident back in January.
Stewart, of course, has not been up to speed for the past several seasons; he finished a distant 28th in points last year after running in all 36 events. One can imagine how dismal those totals would be if you took 12 of his better races away. But before you write Stewart off, consider… it’s his final season on the circuit. The 45-year-old will come back into his No. 14 ride with nothing to lose, an aggressive win-or-bust philosophy and (in theory) top-tier equipment capable of winning races. Teammate Kevin Harvick continues to run circles around the competition in laps led, top-3 finishes and overall speed. Kurt Busch, another Stewart-Haas Racing driver has shown flashes of brilliance and appears to be a title contender. There’s no reason Stewart’s car, which has run in and around the top 10 with substitutes Brian Vickers and Ty Dillon can’t reach the same level of excellence.
So let’s say Stewart comes back, hits on the right combination and steals a win at one of his favorite tracks (Indianapolis is the first one that comes to mind for me). He’d then be in a position to make the Chase as long as he finished inside the top 30 in points. How hard would that be? Not as hard as you’d think and potentially not as hard as it was for Kyle Busch last year. So far this season, through five races the 30th-place point man David Ragan has accumulated just 67 points. That’s slightly better than a 28th-place average finish; 27.8, in fact with a single lap led. If Ragan continues on that pace he’ll be only 147 points ahead of Stewart should he return to the No. 14 car Memorial Day Weekend. 14 races in the regular season would be left to close the gap.
Compare that to Kyle Busch’s deficit, one the No. 18 team easily overcame after their driver missed the first 11 races with well-documented leg injuries. Ironically, back then it was Stewart who was 30th in points and the deficit for Busch to make up was 179. Even with that deeper hole, in just 15 events Busch had outscored 30th in points by 254, won multiple times and found himself comfortably in the field.
With a smaller gap to make up there’s no reason Stewart can’t do the same. If he beats Ragan by only 15 points a race, the gap would be closed and it would happen with an average finish of about 13th. About 10 drivers have achieved that average this season including… wait for it… two of Stewart’s teammates in Busch and Harvick, respectively. So as unlikely as it may seem, a three-time champ in the twilight of his career and battling back from multiple injuries the stats say Stewart can still make summer an interesting comeback story. We’ll have to see if he gets there.
Did You Notice? … Rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are tied for 16th in the Sprint Cup standings? It seems appropriate they’d be neck-and-neck for the final Chase spot if the 2016 season ended today; it’s clear their rookie battle will go down to the wire.
So far, this duo has accumulated one pole, five top-10 results and a respectable average finish of around 19th. Already, that’s more top 10s accumulated than the entire 2013 and 2015 Rookie classes combined. It’s a good sign for the sport as new faces inevitably attract new fans and new enthusiasm to go along with this rules package.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
- Nice to see the Sprint Cup field back at 40 this week. With the Ryan Ellis announcement, putting him in a third car for BK Racing and Premium Motorsports now trotting out a second car I don’t think we’ll be field 39 cars or less for the foreseeable future. The next big step for NASCAR still remains, though; how do you make the jump from the Jay Robinsons filling the field to actual new owners dipping their toes in the sport with fresh money?
- Regan Smith, a former Hendrick Motorsports (via JR Motorsports) satellite employee has just as many top-10 finishes as Kasey Kahne with one-tenth of the funding over at Tommy Baldwin Racing. Certainly, Justin Allgaier can be used in a pinch for the No. 5 come 2017 if things continue to go this badly with Kahne, but you wonder if Hendrick and the Earnhardts are thinking they should have kept Smith on the roster as a better insurance policy.
- One guy I’m watching at Martinsville this weekend? Jamie McMurray. He always runs well there, came close to ruining Jeff Gordon’s dream victory last fall (second) and has quietly put together a solid start to 2016. McMurray has never won at a short track but at some point, considering the middle-tier or better equipment he’s driven all these years, the sheer law of averages has got to win out.
About the author
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.
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