When Tony Stewart won his last Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup five years ago, he didn’t enter the 10-race playoff with a confident outlook in his chances.
But a victory at Chicagoland Speedway sparked a string in which the Columbus native won half of the Chase races in 2011 to capture his third Sprint Cup championship. Today, he’ll try to kick off his quest for a fourth in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Joliet, Illinois.
“The last time we were having these discussions before the Chase started, I said I was wasting a spot in the Chase, and then we went out and won five of the 10 races and won the championship,” Stewart said in a news release. “So, it doesn’t matter what I say or think right now. It’s a matter of what we do when we get to the racetrack.”
Stewart said he has had a strategy that led to his three titles and the championship that Stewart-Haas Racing team member Kevin Harvick won in 2014. But he isn’t revealing his secrets.
However, Stewart did say that one of the keys to success in the Chase is balancing aggressiveness with smart driving, which comes with experience and can be difficult to explain.
“I’m going to go race this Chase the way I know I need to race it and win,” Stewart said. “That doesn’t mean you throw Hail Marys or be super-aggressive or super-passive. To win a championship, you have to be smart enough to know when and when not to push. There will be plenty of both of those moments in the next 10 weeks when you have to exercise that.”
The Chase field will be cut from 16 to 12 drivers after the third week of the Chase. Winners from those three races automatically advance, while the rest of the qualifiers will consist of the drivers with the next-highest point totals.
The same formula will be used to trim the field to eight after the sixth round and four after the ninth round. The championship race will be Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Stewart said he doesn’t think setting a tone in the first race of the Chase is all that critical.
“It’s what you want to do, and all the teams will strive to do,” Stewart said. “But, if you have a bad race at Chicago, or it doesn’t go exactly as you want, I don’t think it is the end of the world. The main thing each time is to advance to the next round. You have to outperform four other guys. Do you have to win or have a top-five at Chicago to start it off right? I don’t think so. But the last thing you want is to have a bad race that puts you in a hole right after Chicago.”
Instead, Stewart said he thinks he can play it safe in Chicago and advance by finishing in the top 10 three consecutive weeks.
“If you get a top-10 in each race I don’t see how you can’t make it to the next round,” Stewart said. “It’s really not about playing it safe for round one as much as it’s about getting in the mode of doing what you have to do for 10 straight weeks to race for a championship. You have to come out in the first round and perform strong, be on your game and do what it takes to win the races.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400, 2:30 p.m. (NBCSN)
Starting position: (qualifying Saturday)
Finished 33rd in Federated Auto Parts 400
CHASE FOR THE CUP
Last race: 8 points
New total for Chase: 2,003
Current position on Chase grid: 11th