Kansas Speedway in Kansas City has been a welcome respite for No. 14 Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS driver Tony Stewart since it was added to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2001. The three-time champion owns victories at the 1.5-mile oval in 2006 and 2009, six top-five and nine top-10 finishes, has led 152 laps, and completed all but 60 of the laps that have been available to him in his 19 career starts at the track for a lap-completion rate of 98.8 percent.
The bulk of Stewart’s success at Kansas occurred on a surface that no longer exists. In addition to a massive repaving project between its two races in 2012, the track was reconfigured to include progressive banking of 17 to 20 degrees. In the Sprint Cup races that he has entered at Kansas since the facelift, Stewart’s best outing is a fifth-place result earned in the fall of 2012. Rules packages have changed several times since then and the first of Kansas’ two races has gone from being a day race in mid-April to an event that begins in late afternoon and ends under cool, dark skies on Mother’s Day weekend.
But challenges are nothing new to Stewart. He’s won on every kind of surface and in just about every type of car he’s ever raced. Plus, he’s on a mission. Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) organization want Saturday night’s Go Bowling 400 to be the launching point to win races and earn a berth for the No. 14 Chevrolet in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Stewart enters the race knowing he’ll be driving the No. 14 for every practice, qualifying session and race for the remainder of the season with no doctor’s restrictions or relief drivers waiting to take over.
The team’s challenges this season have been well-documented. Stewart missed the first eight races after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain vehicle accident. He returned to the No. 14 April 24 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, where he finished 19th. Last weekend at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Stewart drove the first 52 laps on the restrictor-plate track before, under doctor’s orders, turning the driving duties over to Ty Dillon, who dodged three accidents on his way to a sixth-place finish – a season’s best for the No. 14.
NASCAR granted Stewart a medical waiver in April that made him eligible for the Chase and compete for the series championship. To make the Chase, Stewart will have to race his way in by winning at least once and ending NASCAR’s 26-race regular season in the top-30 in driver points. Right now, Matt Dibenedetto is in 30th place with 128 points. Stewart is 38th with 57 points. Last year, Kyle Busch was 179 points out of 30th place when he got back in the cockpit after missing the first 11 races of the 2015 season. Busch went on to win the championship.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism on the No. 14 team. The 24-year-old Dillon and the veteran Vickers battled at the front of the field in each of their races, putting the No. 14 in 21st place in the owner standings. Stewart attended every race except Daytona, often sitting on the pit box or spotter’s stand watching the action and offering advice on the team radio. Stewart, who says he feels better now than he did last year, was as fast as the leaders throughout the Richmond race, sometimes running three- and four-abreast on the short oval despite such a long layoff from racing. He climbed out of the car at Richmond as fresh as he climbed in to start the race.
Under the guidance of first-year crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, the No. 14 team expects to improve its communication, grow each week and contend for victories. The No. 14 team’s goal at the beginning of the 2016 season focused on giving Stewart a final year to remember in his last Sprint Cup season before turning the driving duties over to Clint Bowyer at the Daytona 500 in 2017. Despite the late start to Stewart climbing behind the wheel, those goals haven’t changed.
The first step toward accomplishing all they want to accomplish begins with 400-miles of racing Saturday night in Kansas City.