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

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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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Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”