Compared to many of his fellow drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, Tony Stewart will arrive at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week in a figurative hammock.
Stewart, last year’s champion, is virtually assured of a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He is seventh in the point standings, 51 points ahead of 11th place. And he has a marvelous “backup” plan – he has three seasonal victories and almost certainly would nab a wild-card Chase spot if he falls apart and drops out of the top 10 over the next seven races.
So Stewart and his No. 14 team can afford to approach the next few races without the pressure and drama some teams on the edge of the Chase are experiencing in the closing weeks of the regular season.
Still, Stewart said Tuesday this week’s Crown Royal 400 isn’t a go-strictly-for-the-win race for him.
“We have not talked about strategy yet, and I think the biggest thing for us right now, even though it's a big weekend, this is one battle in the war, and the war is to try to win a championship at the end of the season,” he said.
“To do that, we have got to beat the system. I don't think an all-or-nothing attitude is the approach we are going to have this week. We definitely have that luxury to do that with the three wins that we've got, but I think right now, in the big picture, we are trying to get the consistency the best we can, and I would like to see us put together some consistent runs before the Chase actually starts.
“I don't really know what the approach is going to be yet, and the hard part is it's such a big track that depending on what happens during the race, that will dictate what the strategy is at the end. Like I say, when I'm in the car, I'm not calling the race, anyway. Steve (crew chief Steve Addington) has the ability to do whatever he thinks is the best for us at the time, and he always runs that side of it. So I always back him up whatever he says.”
Stewart rolls into Indy with one of the best records among NASCAR drivers at the historic track. Although Stewart failed at his dream goal of winning the Indianapolis 500, he has been an up-front mainstay in the 400, winning it in 2005 and 2007 and posting an average finish of 8.1 in 13 races, easily the best among the current points top 12.
Additionally, Stewart has been running at the finish of all 13 appearances in the 400.
Stewart, an Indiana native, said it’s fun “to win here at home. It's always fun to win at Indianapolis because it does mean a lot to me to win there. Probably the best part is we have so many friends and family that get to come up to the Brickyard. That makes the days even that much better.
“As far as putting pressure on ourselves, I don't think we really do that anymore. As time has gone on, I think after we won that first one in 2005, it's just taken a huge weight off our shoulders on that side, and [we] just go at it every year with the attitude that we know what it takes to win there, and we try to do our best to accomplish it.”
Stewart said his Stewart-Haas Racing organization is hard at work pursuing sponsor dollars to replace the departing U.S. Army sponsorship that will go away at the end of this season. Ryan Newman has not signed an extension of his contract for next year, but Stewart said he hopes to field three cars (for himself and two other drivers, including Danica Patrick) full-time in Sprint Cup next year.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.