(Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Is Watkins Glen make-or-break for Tony Stewart’s Chase hopes?


In a way, Tony Stewart’s hope to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup is like a wristwatch: the minutes and races are ticking away.

Stewart, who qualified a decent 13th Saturday for Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International, may have his best – and potentially last good – shot at making the Chase this weekend.

Sure, Stewart can still earn at the four other tracks that follow WGI en route to the Chase: Michigan and Bristol, where he has one career win at each, and then Atlanta and Richmond, where he has three wins each.

But no other place between now and the start of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway offers Stewart such strong odds as this weekend’s event.

Stewart has been an outstanding road course racer in his Sprint Cup career, winning seven times since 1999: five at this weekend’s venue, and two others at Sonoma

But Stewart is also well aware that his last win at WGI came back in 2009. Doing well on Sunday is incentive enough, but he also has the added pressure of making it almost mandatory that he must earn a win to make the Chase.

Stewart is known for his coolness under pressure, but things are a bit different this year. He’s at risk of missing the Chase for the third time in its 10-year existence, and for the second year in a row (the third time was 2006, one season after earning his second of three eventual Cup championships).

Missing last year’s Chase was out of Stewart’s control: he missed the final 15 races – including the entire 10-race playoff – due to suffering a broken leg in a sprint car crash early last August.

But now that he’s back, Stewart is trying to stay cool to make the Chase, but he’s starting to show an uncharacteristic bit of insecurity.

“It’s nerve-wracking,” Stewart said in a team media release for Sunday’s race. “You would love to have two or three wins under your belt and not have to be worrying about it, but it’s part of it. But if it were easy, then it wouldn’t mean anything.

“Where we are still doesn’t change anything as far as our approach goes. We’ve got to do the same things, do it the same way. You can’t over-drive the car. You can’t try harder than what you’re already trying. You just have to believe in yourself, believe in your team and not let up.”

At this point with five races left, the best way for Stewart to make the Chase is with a win. But he also has a chance – albeit small – to still make it on points. He’s currently 19th in the Sprint Cup standings.

“To me, it doesn’t matter how you get in, it’s just getting in,” Stewart said. “The important thing is a) getting there and then b) making the cut, and then each cut after that (the three cut-offs in the Chase after the third, sixth and ninth races). We all knew at the start of the season what it was going to take to get in, it’s just a matter of getting there.”

Even though much of the talk this weekend has been about the likely chances of a win by Marcos Ambrose or Stewart’s teammate, Kevin Harvick, Stewart may be at the best place for him and his Chase hopes.

“(This is) a race that we always look forward to,” Stewart said. “We’ve had a lot of success there and it’s just fun. It’s like taking Sonoma and just multiplying the speed times three. It’s just a lot faster track. It still has the same elevation changes, but you’re just running a lot quicker. Both Sonoma and Watkins Glen are two places on the schedule that we really enjoy coming to.

“When you’ve won five races, it gives you that confidence that you know how to win, and know what you have to do to get to victory lane. I know what feel I need when we get here. It’s just a matter of going out and … putting yourself in that position.”

For Stewart, that position is rather simple and cut-and-dried: First. Everything else is not enough.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.