Can Smoke rise all the way to the Chase? That’s the big question this season.
You see, Tony Stewart is in the midst of his farewell tour, electing to hang up his Sprint Cup helmet following the conclusion of the 2016 NASCAR season. Stewart, a three-time champion and 48-time race winner, is a Hall of Fame lock but wants to end his career with a bang and not a whimper, as many retirees have before him.
On paper, the retirement makes sense. Stewart is 44 and will be 45 by the time the season is over. Since winning his third premier title in 2011, Stewart has seen a decline in performance, winning only four times and only running the whole season on two occasions – 2012 and 2015. The two years in between saw Stewart miss races due to a broken leg (2013) and following a sprint car accident in which a competitor was killed (2014).
Knowing he was getting up there in age, and likely inspired by the success that fellow competitor Jeff Gordon was enjoying during his farewell tour in 2015, Stewart announced last September that 2016 would be his final go-round on the Cup level. His bucket list for this final season was large: a Daytona 500 victory, triumphs at Darlington and Indianapolis, a final championship.
Stewart never had a chance at the 500, bursting a vertebra while off-roading just weeks before the sport’s Super Bowl. Stewart would miss an additional seven races before making his season debut last weekend at Richmond, a race that saw Stewart finish 19th and score 22 points toward his Chase bid. Stewart currently sits 40th in Sprint Cup points, 101 markers behind 30th-place Matt DiBenedetto. Should Stewart make the top 30 in points, he’d need a win to qualify for the Chase. NASCAR granted Stewart a waiver earlier in the season.
If you think you’ve heard this story before, it’s because a similar one happened last season. Kyle Busch, injured in an XFINITY race at Daytona and down 11 races, returned, qualified for the Chase with four wins and a top 30 points position and eventually won the championship.
Could Stewart do the same, even partially? He has an easier road to climb than Busch. Last year’s champion needed an average finish of just under 16 to make the Chase and he delivered, averaging 11.4 during his run to the playoffs.
Stewart needs to average a 22nd-place finish, something certainly doable for a champ. Let’s take a brief look at the next 17 races on the schedule and see where Stewart needs to excel and where he needs to protect.
- GEICO 500, Talladega Superspeedway: Stewart won’t be doing more than starting the race this weekend. After the green flies, Ty Dillon will take over the No. 14. Dillon’s career average in Cup at plate tracks is 26.5, but both of his starts came at Daytona. In the XFINITY Series, Dillon averages a 15.7 at Dega. Both drivers just need a clean race – nothing flashy, nothing daring – to ensure a good points day. However, if Dillon finds himself at the front late, expect him to go for the win, something that would count as a Chase-clinching win should Stewart make the top 30 in points.
- GoBowling.com 400, Kansas: Don’t let Stewart’s 39th-place finish in this race last year fool you, Smoke and Kansas are a good mix. In the past four spring races here, Stewart has averaged a 23.3 finish, just a hair lower than what he needs to make the Chase, but he does have two wins at the track and finishes in the top 10 47.4 percent of the time. This is a track where he can get a good finish, and needs to.
- AAA 400, Dover: This is another track Stewart can excel at. He owns a career average of 13.5 at the Delaware track, but his average in the last four spring races drops to 12.3, including a 16th last season. This is a huge track for Stewart’s Chase hopes, and he’ll need another strong run to offset potential point losses later in the season.
- Coca-Cola 600, Charlotte: Smoke is known for running both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, but his only goal for this race is to run the 600-mile portion and see how his back is holding up afterward. Stewart’s last four races on Memorial Day weekend have led to an average finish of 16.5. Another solid performance here, like at Dover, will be helpful in the long run. Should he put together two straight solid races, that could pay huge dividends as the series heads to …
- Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400, Pocono: The Tricky Triangle is Smoke’s third-best track out of these remaining 15, with an average of 12, including 23 top 10s in 34 starts. Stewart’s average in the past four spring races is also very good, with a 10.3. This track could be the site of a surprise Smoke victory if he gets the new low-downforce package under control.
- FireKeepers Casino 400, Michigan: Another solid track. Stewart finishes in the top 10 62.5 percent of the time, and averaged an 11.5 finish in the past four June races at the track. He’s won at Michigan only once, so while a victory isn’t likely a solid top-15 finish is.
Toyota/Save Mart 350, Sonoma: Stewart is road course royalty, and while he isn’t as strong in California as he is at Watkins Glen, he is always solid in wine country. This is another track where Stewart finishes in the top 10 more often than not, and he has the added incentive of repeating what Kyle Busch did last season and knocking the win criteria out of the way at this track.
- Coke Zero 400, Daytona: This is one of the two biggest hurdles on Stewart’s road to the Chase, even more so than Talladega. Smoke is feast or famine here, winning four times in the July race, but he’s also failed to finish a race at Daytona five times. Four of those have been in the 500, but all it takes is one bad move be anybody in the pack and Stewart could score very few points.
- Quaker State 400, Kentucky: This is the other hurdle. Stewart has no wins, no top 5s, no top 10s even – and an average finish of 24 over the past four years. That isn’t to say Kentucky will doom him, his 22nd-place target average allows for poor races. This will most likely be one of them.
- New Hampshire 301, New Hampshire: This is a strong track for the three-time champ. He owns three wins at the Magic Mile and a 12.5 average finish through his 33 starts. This race takes place during the heat of summer, a time during which Stewart has historically excelled. A solid top 15 is certainly doable here.
- Crown Royal 400, Indianapolis: Stewart’s home track has been kind to him. He’s won twice as a driver, another as an owner, and averages a 9.6 finish here. While that number drops about five spots over the past four races, expect a determined Stewart and while he probably won’t knock another Indy trophy off his bucket list, he’ll put up a fight. Expect a top 10.
- Pennsylvania 400, Pocono: See stats above, change average finish to 14.8, his average during the second race at the Long Pond track.
- Cheez-It 355, Watkins Glen: Stewart finished dead last in last year’s race, and didn’t race in 2013 and 2014, so the average finish over the last four years includes 2011 and 2012 (23.8). This is Stewart’s playground, however, and if he’s got the new package down and the swagger from a good summer he could very well battle AJ Allmendinger and Busch for the win.
- Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, Bristol: This is one of Stewart’s weaker tracks and will be a big race to watch as the Chase looms. He’s been out to lunch the past four races at the track, averaging a 25.3 finish. After Daytona and Kentucky, this is the third hurdle for Smoke to clear.
- Pure Michigan 400, Michigan: See stats above, change average finish to 17, his average during the second race at Brad Keselowski’s home track.
- Bojangles’ Southern 500, Darlington: This is another track that Stewart has gotten better at during the last four years. His average finish during that timeframe is 10.5, better than the 12th-place finish he’s averaged since he joined the series in 1999. He owns 12 top 10 finishes through 23 races – expect another one this season.
- Federated Auto Parts 400, Richmond: Smoke has an average finish of 13.8 during the past four races at this race, the cut-off to the Chase. If Stewart is in the top 30 and doesn’t yet have a win, expect whatever strategy it takes to snag a win – staying out, taking two tires, whatever. He’s won here three times and finishes in the top 10 more than he doesn’t. This is ultimately the most important race for Stewart all season. It won’t diminish his career one bit if he doesn’t make the Chase, but doing so would be a huge boon for both him and the sport.
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