With less than two weeks before Election Day, campaigns are on high alert for an “October Surprise,” where a calculated political maneuver designed to create news coverage influences the outcome of an election.
While Tony Stewart didn’t run for office last year, the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing delivered an October Surprise of his own.
In last year’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Stewart rallied from an unscheduled pit stop that left him 20th with less than 85 laps remaining to take the lead from five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson on a restart with three laps to go. Stewart won, and in doing so, climbed to second in the championship point standings, eight behind then leader Carl Edwards, prompting Stewart to say to a live network TV audience, “Carl Edwards had better be really worried. That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to have an easy three weeks.” Stewart went on to win the championship three races later in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The rhetorical roundhouses and blitzkrieg of bravado that accompanies modern-day politics ensures that candidates use every tool in their toolbox to emerge victorious once all the ballots are counted. Stewart did just that at Martinsville, outfoxing his foes on the racetrack and then delivering a discourse that made everyone take notice. And when all the points were tallied after Homestead, it was Stewart on top for the third time in his career.
Stewart’s October Surprise served notice to all that he was determined a grab a third Sprint Cup trophy to place alongside the ones he earned in 2002 and 2005. And his win at Martinsville was indeed a surprise, for in Stewart’s three previous starts at the .526-mile oval, he finished 26th, 24th and 34th. And while Stewart struggled at the paperclip-shaped bullring, two drivers dominated – Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Prior to last year’s TUMS Fast Relief 500, Johnson and Hamlin combined to win nine of the previous 10 races, with Johnson securing five of those wins and Hamlin grabbing the other four.
Since winning at Martinsville in April 2006, Stewart was resigned to being a spectator as Johnson and Hamlin turned Martinsville into their personal playground. That is until last October, where Stewart set in motion his epic championship charge.
While Stewart enters this year’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 in a less powerful position – seventh in points, 47 behind leader Brad Keselowski – he is still powerful at Martinsville. In addition to being the race’s defending winner, his Stewart-Haas Racing team owns the last two wins at Martinsville, as teammate Ryan Newman won in the series’ most recent trip there in April while Stewart finished a solid seventh.
There is a new championship battle in 2012, with conventional wisdom saying that Stewart and anyone else outside the top-five in points are out of title contention. But conventional wisdom, like political polls, is subject to change, and all it takes is an October Surprise.