KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series begins its 16-driver, 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois, Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), has some specific strategy he says led to success over the years as both a Chase-winning driver and championship-winning car owner.
He’s followed that strategy and even imparted the wisdom to SHR teammate Kevin Harvick, who won a championship in 2014. But don’t count on ever hearing about any specifics from Stewart.
“I am not going to tell everyone that – are you kidding me,” Stewart said with a laugh. “This is the point of the season where you don’t tell anyone anything. You keep it in-house, you keep it to yourself. You don’t give the guys you’re competing against the opportunity to get those tips. This is the Chase.”
Stewart did admit one of the keys to success in the Chase is balancing aggressiveness with smart driving. He said that ability comes with experience and can be difficult to put into words.
“I’m going to go race this Chase the way I know I need to race it and win,” Stewart said. “That doesn’t mean you throw Hail Marys or be super-aggressive or super-passive. To win a championship, you have to be smart enough to know when and when not to push. There will be plenty of both of those moments in the next 10 weeks when you have to exercise that.”
Stewart begins his final Chase 12th in the reset standings, just nine points behind leader Kyle Busch. He joins fellow SHR drivers Harvick and Kurt Busch in this year’s playoffs. The SHR contingent plus 13 other drivers will take to the track at Chicagoland, New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and Dover (Del.) International Speedway vying for the 12 spots available in the second round. A win at any of the three first-round races equals advancement into the second round with the rest of the field of 12 determined by order of points scored in the round.
The 12 second-round drivers will race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway in Kansas City and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for the eight spots available in the third round. Again, a win at any of the three second-round races equals advancement into the third round. The rest of the field of eight for the third round will be determined by order of points scored in the three second-round races. Eight drivers will battle at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth and Phoenix International Raceway for the four spots available in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship race. A win at any of the three third-round races equals advancement into the championship race. The four finalists will start the race tied, and the highest finisher among them at Homestead-Miami Speedway will win the Sprint Cup championship.
Stewart couldn’t ask for a better track to begin the Chase. He has three wins, eight top-five finishes and 10 top-10s at the mile-and-a-half oval and has led a total of 434 laps in his 15 career Sprint Cup starts at Chicagoland. His average Chicagoland start is 18.4, his average finish is 10.4, and he has a lap-completion rate of 99.6 percent.
After missing the first eight races of 2016 because of an offseason injury, Stewart’s June victory at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway and his seven top-10 finishes in 18 starts since his return have created a great deal of optimism in the No. 14 camp. Don’t underestimate Stewart in this year’s Chase. In 2011, he told everyone who would listen that his team didn’t belong in the Chase. Until then, not only was his car not running well, but Stewart said he couldn’t explain why it wasn’t running well. At the Chicagoland Chase opener that year, he led 35 laps en route to a victory that even surprised him. He went on to log five victories in the Chase and win his third title that season.
And he learned a lesson from that season.
“The last time we were having these discussions before the Chase started, I said I was wasting a spot in the Chase, and then we went out and won five of the 10 races and won the championship,” he said. “So, it doesn’t matter what I say or think right now. It’s a matter of what we do when we get to the racetrack.”
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How important is it to come out and set a tone for the Chase at Chicagoland?
“I don’t think it’s that critical. It’s what you want to do and all the teams will strive to do. But, if you have a bad race at Chicago, or it doesn’t go exactly as you want, I don’t think it is the end of the world. The main thing each time is to advance to the next round. You have to outperform four other guys. Do you have to win or have a top-five at Chicago to start it off right? I don’t think so. But the last thing you want is to have a bad race that puts you in a hole right after Chicago.”
Can you play it safe in round one and advance by logging top-10 finishes?
“I think so. If you get a top-10 in each race I don’t see how you can’t make it to the next round. It’s really not about playing it safe for round one as much as it’s about getting in the mode of doing what you have to do for 10 straight weeks to race for a championship. You have to come out in the first round and perform strong, be on your game and do what it takes to win the races.”
What do you remember about winning at Chicagoland in 2011? It was the first of your five Chase wins that year that led to the title.
“The win at Chicagoland in 2011 basically made me look like an idiot. I had preached for weeks that we did not belong in the Chase and, up until the Chase started, we didn’t. We were not running well, nor did we have an idea why we weren’t running well. All of a sudden, we show up and win Chicago. It was probably the only time I’ve ever won a Cup race and thought, ‘That was probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.’ I felt really passionate about the fact we didn’t belong in it and then turned right around and, ‘ta-da.’ It was like going to see David Copperfield in Las Vegas. It was like, ‘poof,’ all of a sudden something we said couldn’t happen happened.”
Do you think adding Chicagoland to the NASCAR schedule has boosted the sport’s fan appeal?
“The thing about the Chicago market is not just the people who come from downtown Chicago to see the race, but you are in a spot in the Midwest where there is so much pavement stock car racing, dirt stock racing, open-wheel dirt racing, open-wheel pavement racing. It is a hub for racers. Chicago feels like a home track because it’s close to my home in (Columbus) Indiana. I remember we used to race a ton in Illinois and run a ton in Wisconsin. We see a lot of those people now. Those fans used to just go to dirt races. So, when NASCAR came to Chicago, it was a huge deal to them. I remember listening and talking to those fans and people who I have known in racing and how big a deal it was to them when NASCAR came to Chicago.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine