Tony Stewart needs a bounce-back performance.
After finishing sixth and seventh in the first two Chase events, the Columbus native struggled to a 20th-place finish Sunday at Dover, Del. That dropped the defending champion to fifth in the points standings, 32 behind leader Brad Keselowski, heading into Sunday’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
“I don’t think anybody can predict what’s going to happen until after you get out of Talladega,” Stewart said in a news release. “Even looking at last year, it wasn’t until Martinsville (Va.), and that was four races from the end of the year, before we really knew that we had a shot.
“There’s so many things that can happen this weekend,” he said. “It’s just really hard to predict. It can eliminate people’s chances, and even for people who are still mathematically in it, having a good weekend at Talladega doesn’t ensure that they’re going to have a shot at the championship.”
Stewart has one win and six second-place finishes in his 27 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts at Talladega. But he also has failed to finish five times, largely because of multicar pileups that claim several drivers at a time.
Some drivers, especially those involved in the Chase, could try to push to the front early or linger at the back of the pack until late in the race in an effort to avoid the pileups that have become common at Talladega.
“I don’t know how you ever predict where you need to be to stay out of the big one,” Stewart said. “That’s the hard thing. There’s times when if you’re up front you stay ahead of it, and there’s times when if you’re in the back you can stay away from it. But I think different drivers will have different strategies on how they want to run their race and where they want to be track position-wise to give themselves the best opportunity and make sure they’re there at the end.”
Although Stewart has had plenty of success at restrictor-plate tracks including Talladega, he hasn’t embraced the idea of restrictor-plate racing.
“I’m glad we’re halfway decent at it, but it’s still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does,” Stewart said. “It’s not what you do; it’s what you do along with somebody else who decides that they’re going to follow you and help you. That’s the part that frustrates you as a driver.”
Stewart said the fall race at Talladega isn’t any more nerve-racking than the one in the spring.
“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 May during the regular season or in October when I’m in the Chase.”