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.
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