All the talk about the Sprint Cup championship so far has focused on Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Yes, they've been dazzling with their speed and skillful driving in the opening three Chase races, and they've been pegged as the drivers to beat for the championship.
But seven races remain, plenty for 2011 NASCAR champion Tony Stewart to make a charge. He's spent a lifetime winning championships in karting, USAC and IndyCar, and his five-win Chase last year cannot be forgotten; the man knows how to create a championship run.
During the Chase last year, Tony Stewart's worst track was Dover, where he finished 25th and left third in the points standings. Last Sunday was hardly any different: Stewart was 20th at the Monster Mile and it dropped him to fifth. But the largest difference between this year and last is the points deficit. He was nine points out of the lead in 2011, but this year, he's 32 behind. It sounds like a lot, but it's not insurmountable for a driver of Stewart's ilk.
Stewart's been solid throughout the Chase so far. He finished sixth at Chicagoland and seventh at New Hampshire, but they don't compare with his two wins to open the Chase a year ago. However his finish at Dover was actually a gain of five points on last year. Unfortunately it could have been much, much better, because cautions kept catching Stewart at the wrong time.
"We just got caught behind the eight ball," Stewart said. "We got a lap down and the next run we pitted, and when we came back out, the No. 36 car (JJ Yeley) crashes. It was just a domino effect. Every time you'd try to get a lap back, it would run all the way to the end. And as soon as we'd pit, the caution would come out again.
"I don't know what we've got to do to change our luck, but that's just the story of the day for us. It was the best car I've had here in a long time."
Through 29 races Stewart's actually had a better season than a year ago. He started the season like gangbusters with wins at Las Vegas and Fontana, Calif., and added a third at Daytona in July. In 2011 he was winless until the Chase.
"I don't even know if last year at this point if we felt like we had a great thing going on," Stewart said prior to Dover. "We had so much bad luck leading into the Chase that one race win at Chicago [in 2011] didn't really make us feel like we had just all of a sudden turned everything around. Definitely after Loudon [New Hampshire], it felt better, but then we went into the third race at Dover and we were back to reality."
Stewart and five-time Cup champion Johnson are the only drivers in the 2012 Chase who have won it before. They know how to approach the races and realize the mental toughness needed to succeed in them. Keselowski, Hamlin and Clint Bowyer, fourth in points, still have to prove they can do it. There's pressure on all, but its more extreme on those trying to win a first title. It works in Stewart's advantage.
"One day at a time like we've done for 32 years of our racing career," he said. "The philosophy of how to win races and championships doesn't change from week to week. You do the same thing. It starts on Friday and you take it one day at a time. ... You know that 65 percent of the things that go on during the race are out of your control, so you just try to control the 35 percent that you can control and take it from there."
Stewart finished seventh in the Chase race at Talladega a year ago, and he'll try to improve on that Sunday.
"We're looking at it as an opportunity to gain some points and positions," Stewart said. "Every time you're at Talladega, you try to take care of yourself and your equipment by not getting yourself in compromising positions that are going to take you out of an opportunity to get you to the end of the race. For me, it's no different whether the race is in April during the regular season or in October when I'm in the Chase."
Stewart won last year's title with three wins and a third in the final four races. Often overlooked is his 15th at Kansas, eighth at Charlotte and seventh at Talladega leading into that magnificent run. Can Stewart win three of the last four again? Probably not, but he has a chance to put more points on the board in the other three.
Consider this too: Does anybody expect Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin not to have a mediocre or poor or unlucky race in the final seven? The competition level of Cup has a habit of bringing the high flyers back to earth intermittently. The best of them overcome to rise again.
Stewart doesn't seem concerned by being fifth in points.
"Until they tell us we're not, we're in it," he said