KANNAPOLIS, N.C. - Psst. Can you keep a secret?
Don’t tell anybody, but amid the nostalgia and fanfare of his 18th and final year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, No. 14 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS driver Tony Stewart is putting together one heck of a regular season. With all the focus on the commemoration of his retirement, his championship bid is flying under the radar.
Remember at the beginning of the year when the 45-year-old Stewart said 2016 was all about going out and “having fun” and hopefully running decently to cap off a wonderful career? Then came the January news of a fractured vertebrae from an all-terrain vehicle accident in California. The injury kept Stewart out of the first eight races and seemed to have lulled everyone into thinking there would be no way he and his team led by rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz could contend for the title.
Well, here’s the kicker: Stewart is enjoying a better regular season in 2016 that he did in 2011, when he won his third and most recent Sprint Cup championship. Yes, you read that right. Tony Stewart’s average finish in 14 regular-season races in 2016 is 13.6. Compare that to the 14.2 average finish he posted in 26 regular-season races in 2011. He also has a win in 2016 compared to entering the 2011 Chase winless.
In fairness, Stewart’s 2011 season is remembered for the remarkable run he made once the Chase began, when he won five of the 10 Chase races, including the dramatic final victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Expecting a similar run in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup is asking a lot, but Stewart will likely enter it equal to if not ahead of the 2011 pace.
He’s finished in the top-10 in seven of the 14 races he’s entered in 2016.
Consider this: In the last five races, only Kyle Busch has scored more points – just one – than Stewart. Small sample size skews the figure, you might say? Well, it’s been a sustained success. In the last nine races, Stewart is the third-highest points scorer. He’s heating up just at the right time. With only four regular-season races left until the start of this year’s Chase, Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) team seem focused on turning regular-season success into Chase success. At the most recent race, the No. 14 team parlayed the perfect fuel strategy and dodging late-race trouble into a fifth-place finish at Watkins Glen (N.Y) International – its fifth top-five in the last seven races.
“We just keep being consistent,” Stewart said. “Even on days we don’t have a top-10 or top-five car, we’re finding ways to make top-fives out of it. That’s what you’ve got to do in the Chase. You’ve got to be able to make something out of nothing, and these guys are doing a great job out of that.”
Stewart and the No. 14 crew head to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway for Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. Stewart has a win, seven top-five finishes and 10 top-10s and has led a total of 1,355 laps in his 32 career Sprint Cup starts at Bristol. His average Bristol start is 16.6, his average finish is 17.3, and he has a lap-completion rate of 96.4 percent. Stewart watched the Bristol race from the spotter’s stand in April, coaching substitute driver Ty Dillon around the half-mile track. Dillon appeared ready to score a top-10 finish but a late-race accident left him with a 14th-place finish.
Stewart said he knows how frustrating Bristol can be, but said that increases his desire for victory.
“We’ve led a lot of laps there but we just don’t have the wins to show for it,” Stewart said. “It’s a track I definitely like. Everybody goes, ‘How can you like it when you’ve not had any success there for a while?’ To me, that’s just motivation. It gives us the ambition to be successful.”
With 40 cars jammed on a half-mile, high-banked track, the likelihood of encountering trouble at some point during the race is high. But Stewart said he’s developed full confidence in Bugarewicz and the No. 14 team to quickly adapt a new strategy during the race that works out by the time the checkered flag flies.
“It seems, once you get through that first stop, he can analyze where we’re at and what we need to do to get where we need to be,” said Stewart, who credited Bugarewicz with a midrace strategy change that led to his June 26 victory at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. “I’m pretty excited about how good he is at calling a race like that.”
Stewart hopes a strong run Saturday night at Bristol, along with similar performances at the Michigan, Darlington and Richmond races, will propel the team toward the Sept. 18 Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois. If the next four races generate results similar to the last four, then it’s doubtful the three-time champion’s bid to win a fourth title will remain a secret once the playoffs begin.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What makes Bristol special?
“There is nowhere else in the country, at any racetrack, where you have the atmosphere like you have at Bristol. To have that many people surrounding a racetrack of that size, you just don’t get that anywhere else. You can’t duplicate that atmosphere. When stuff is going on, you see the fans. If you take the lead, you can see the fans the next lap cheering you on. That’s something we don’t always get at a lot of these tracks. At Bristol, (the fans) are right on top of you. We get to share those moments with the fans.”
Why is it so hard to be successful at Bristol?
“We can run so fast around the top of the racetrack, now. It’s crazy speeds for a 3,300-pound stock car. You don’t have a lot of time in the corners where you are off the gas to make big moves. You really have to be a lot faster. If you have had any kind of a good day, you are proud of it because it is a very physical track like Martinsville is and you are going to have to push and shove to get where you need to be, at times. You can push and shove and create your own problems, too, and take yourself out of the race because of that. You really have to put it together.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine