For Tony Stewart, the key to his entire Chase may very well take place Sunday afternoon at Dover -- his self-described weakest track in the 10-race playoffs.
Stewart has been the surprise story of September in NASCAR. Just three weeks ago he needed to have a solid night at Richmond simply to advance to the Chase. He had failed to win a single regular-season event and, if he'd crashed or had a mechanical failure at Richmond, he likely would have missed the playoffs. But then on that Saturday night in Virginia, Stewart authored a seventh-place run at the .75-mile short track and wound up ninth in the final regular-season standings. He was in -- but barely.
Stewart had struggled so mightily over the summer months that he even told reporters he'd be "wasting" a spot if he made it into the Chase, because he genuinely felt he had zero chance of winning the title. Well, Stewart was flat-out wrong about that. In a development that has stunned the garage, Stewart has won the first two races of the playoffs -- at Chicagoland and then at New Hampshire last Sunday -- and he now holds a seven-point lead in the standings over Kevin Harvick.
A few years ago, Stewart flourished on the high banks of Dover, a one-mile oval. Between his rookie season of 1999 and 2004, he won twice there, his worst finish was 11th and he led a hard-to-believe 22.2 percent of the laps. But then, suddenly, Stewart lost his feel for the Monster Mile. Since 2005, he has only three top-10 finishes there, and in his last two Dover events he's come in 21st and 29th, failing to finish on the lead lap in both.
For Stewart, a moral victory would be a top-10 run on Sunday. That would likely allow him to keep the points lead as the series moves to Kansas, where Stewart's average finish in his last three starts is 4.3. So can Stewart manage a solid run at Dover? I think he can. Though Stewart swears there's no such thing as momentum in NASCAR, I strongly disagree. Momentum in motor sports comes in the form of discovering a setup in your car that gives you an advantage over the field, which Stewart and his crew chief Darian Grubb have clearly uncovered. I don't think he'll win on Sunday -- my pick is below -- but I'd be surprised if Stewart wasn't your points leader once the checkered flag flies on Sunday afternoon over the Monster Mile.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching at Dover:
Only two races into the Chase, it's rapidly closing in on do-or-die time for the five-time defending champ. After a 10th-place run at Chicagoland, he struggled at New Hampshire, fading late and finishing 18th. Johnson was so upset that he grew audibly frustrated with crew chief Chad Knaus, telling him over the radio that his positive encouragement was "annoying." It was a little thing, but it revealed that all is not well in the world of the No. 48 team.
The good news for Johnson: He positively loves Dover. He's won three of the last five races there and he's led laps in the last nine Dover events. I think Johnson will dominate on Sunday, driving away from the field early, in the middle of the race and late. The pressure is clearly on Johnson and Knaus, and over the past five years they've always responded to these tense moments -- and I mean,
Currently third in the standings, Keselowski has emerged as the biggest X-factor in the Chase. Why? Because even though Keselowski struggled early in the season, he's now tearing up tracks that he visits for a second time. Consider New Hampshire. After finishing 35th on the mile short track in the spring, he came in second on Sunday. I expect this pattern to repeat itself at Dover, where he struggled in the spring but salvaged a 13th-place finish. On Sunday, in only his 82nd career start in the Cup series, look for him to rip off his third straight top-five run.
A month ago it looked like Harvick would be nothing more than a space-filler in the Chase. Despite winning three of the first 12 events this season, Harvick struggled over the summer, turning into a mid-pack driver. Then, surprisingly, he and his crew chief Gil Martin hit on something in their package. They won at Richmond in the regular-season finale, came in second at Chicagoland and managed a 12th-place run at New Hampshire. Yes, Harvick is now very much a legitimate title contender.
Dover is not one of his best tracks. In 21 starts at the Monster Mile, he's never won and his average finish is 17.0. But given the way he's running lately -- and again, momentum is very real in NASCAR because of setup secrets that are discovered -- he should be good for a top-10 on Sunday.
So far Edwards has had a quietly solid Chase. He came in fourth at Chicagoland, where he led 39 laps and briefly looked like the car to beat, and then finished eighth at New Hampshire. He's now fourth in the standings and, from where I sit, looks to be in great position to win his first Cup title.
Edwards flourishes on the intermediate-length tracks, and four of the last seven Chase races take place at these 1.5-mile venues. So for Edwards, he simply needs to avoid a points-crushing 15th-place finish or worse at Dover and then move on next week to Kansas, where he's finished sixth or better in six of his last eight starts.
Can Edwards have a good run at the Monster Mile? I think so. After all, his average finish at the track in 14 starts is an impressive 7.6. He'd certainly take that on Sunday.