At a place where he’s pretty much been feast or famine, Tony Stewart desperately needs some feast this weekend.
Stewart, the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, has had a difficult start to this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. He ran out of gas while leading at New Hampshire Motor Speedway two weeks ago and finished 24th, followed by a 21st-place run last Sunday at Dover International Speedway.
Just two races into the Chase, Stewart is mired in 10th place, 162 points behind leader Denny Hamlin. Given that the most points one driver can make up on another in the same race is 161, Stewart already finds himself more than one full race behind Hamlin. That’s hardly where he envisioned himself being given that he scored more points than any other driver during the last 10 races of NASCAR’s regular season.
This weekend, the Sprint Cup teams will race at Kansas Speedway, a track where Stewart has been spectacularly bi-polar: In his last four starts at the 1.5-mile oval, Stewart has two victories and finishes of 39th and 40th. No middle ground whatsoever.
Stewart has to have a strong run in Sunday’s Price Chopper 400 if he’s to stay in touch with Hamlin, second-place Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the leaders. He insists, though, it’s too early in the Chase to worry about going into catch-up mode.
“It’s strictly a week-to-week deal,” Stewart said. “None of us can predict this. If we could, we’d be bookies in Las Vegas making millions of dollars betting on these races instead of driving in them. And it’s a heck of a lot safer sitting in a chair in that dark room letting cocktail waitresses bring you drinks. I don’t have the answers. Nobody has the answers. All we can do is speculate on what’s going to happen until each week actually happens. So, all we can do is guess on what’s going to happen. If any of us can predict the top-10 positions in Sunday’s race – you’re a genius, let alone figuring out how the next eight weeks are going to be.”
For now, the game plan is to run the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet as hard and as fast as it will go and let the competition sort itself out.
“As we get closer to the end of the season – probably with two or three races to go – you’re going to be singling out guys a little bit more and paying closer attention to where they are on the race track, what position they’re in, and how many laps they’ve led,” Stewart said.
“The further we get into it, the more the points are going to separate the field, and you’re going to see exactly who you’re racing against for the championship,” said Stewart. “There probably won’t be 12 guys with two or three races left. It’ll be down to four or five guys who have a shot at it.”
Like everyone else, Stewart will be targeting four-time defending series champ Johnson as the man to beat, though he sees the race being wide open until the bitter end.
“This is probably the best shot that 11 guys have had in four years to keep (Johnson) from doing that,” Stewart said. “It’s the most competitive Chase field we’ve ever had. It’s still anybody’s game right now. There’s a lot of racing that has to go on. There are a lot of variables out of our control each week. They have just as good a shot this year as they’ve had the last four years of winning a championship. It’s not whether they can do it five times in a row. It’s can they do it this year? That’s the big thing.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.