The Sprint Cup Series is nearing the half way point on the 10-month long schedule. With just 11 races until the Chase begins at Chicagoland on September 18th, drivers are scrambling to punch their ticket into the 2016 playoffs. While names such as Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Dale Earnhardt Jr are all in the hunt for one of just 16 highly coveted Chase spots, one former champion is attempting to battle the odds in his final season. In this blog post, I want to lay out three reasons why fans shouldn't give up their hopes for Tony Stewart to make the Chase in 2016. Before we start, I want to acknowledge that this article is not stating whether Stewart will or will not make the Chase, but rather the understanding that the three time champion is far from being out of contention. With that being said, let's get to it!
1. Better Performance.
Tony Stewart scored his second top-10 finish of the season in last weekend's FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan. Smoke's 7th place finish isn't worth freaking out over, but it's a sign that the 3-time Sprint Cup champion is showing improvement. Starting last weekend at Pocono, Stewart showed his fans and competition that the 14 team is capable of making a run for the playoffs. After qualifying 6th at the Tricky Triangle, Stewart ran solidly in the top half of the field before getting lose and colliding with teammate Danica Patrick in the closing stages of the race. Stewart's 34th place finish didn't help his points situation, but showed that the 14 car is picking up the pace. As a follow up to Pocono, Smoke qualified 3rd at Michigan while keeping his #14 Chevy inside the top-10 for all 400 miles. Stewart and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz still have a ways to go, but it's important to understand that in order for Smoke to rise there has to be fire, and every fire starts with a spark. Let's see if Michigan is the spark Stewart needs to emerge as a Chase contender.
2. Summer Stretch.
For fans that have followed the sport for years they know that Tony Stewart is known for his success during NASCAR's annual 'summer stretch'. For new fans, the summer stretch is a string of about 7 races that span from Sonoma (June 26) to Watkins Glen (August 7). These races are ran during late June, July and early August, all playing a pivotal role in deciding who will qualify for the Chase. So why is this a sign of hope for Tony Stewart fans? Well here's why... Tony Stewart has scored 15 of his 48 career wins (31.25%) in this stretch of races. Taking a deeper look, I wanted to research Stewart's resume at a few of the upcoming tracks, starting off with the series next stop on the schedule, Sonoma. Stewart has scored 2 wins in his 17 career starts, with the last one coming in 2005. Altogether Stewart has five top-5's and nine top-10's in wine county, giving him an average finish of 12.41. In addition to Sonoma, 14 fans can look forward to this years Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. In 17 starts Stewart has scored four wins, six top-5's and eight top-10's. His average finish of 15.11 may not sound special, but long time fans know that Tony Stewart is always a threat at the 2.5 mile superspeedway come July.
Next, let's focus on Indianapolis. Tony Stewart is a two time Brickyard 400 winner, taking the checkered's in 2005 & 2007. In 17 Brickyard starts, Stewart has scored seven top-5's and eleven top-10's, resulting in a 9.65 average finish (his best avg finish in the summer stretch). Stewart's experience at Indy goes back to his days in the Indy 500, and could help him score his 49th career win. The fourth and final track to look at is Watkins Glen. Stewart has just 15 starts at the 2.45 mile road course, and his results speak for themselves. Smoke has scored a series record five wins at the Glen, and has amassed a 10.27 average finish, scoring seven top-5's and ten top-10's finishes during his career. Overall, there is plenty of reasons as to why Smoke could very well score a win in the next seven weeks, and these four tracks are proof of his success.
3. Closing in on 30th.
Tony Stewart's quest to make the Chase won't stop with a win, Smoke must also earn enough points to land inside the top-30 in the drivers standings. Per NASCAR rules, a driver must be inside the top-30 to become Chase eligible, which means Stewart still has plenty of work to do. No need to worry though, Smoke is working his way through the standings one week at a time. Having started just 7 of the first 15 races, Stewart has already climbed from 40th to 35th in the standings. His performance at Michigan helped his cause as he earned 34 points, pushing him from 36th to 35th in points. With 11 races left before the Chase, Stewart is currently 45 points behind the 30th place driver, Brian Scott. Stewart needs to gain roughly 4 points a week on the 30th place driver to become Chase eligible, something that is very doable considering his level of talent. In fact last weekend at Michigan, Stewart gained a net total of 26 points on the 30th position. If he can maintain this level of competition Smoke will be in the top-30 in no time.
Well thanks for reading! It will be a long road ahead for the 14 team but with a combination of fast cars and some of Stewart's favorite tracks, the 3-time champ may find himself in the post season after all! Make sure you follow me on Twitter at @nascar_opinion & tweet me your thoughts on this article! Also, follow NASCAR OPINION on Instagram and @nascar_opinion on Periscope. Feel free to comment below and share with your friends and fellow NASCAR fans! Have a great week and rest of your day!
(Statistics are from racingreference.com & driveraverages.com) (Photocredits: @MonteDutton/chickenbonealley.com, Getty Images/ Sportingnews.com, @jeffowens_SN sportingnews.com)