In the 12-year history of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, there’s probably no track during its 10 races that causes greater anxiety among the 16 drivers bidding to advance beyond the first round than New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
The 1.058-mile oval rivals Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for Chase tracks most likely to instantly turn a good race into a horror show for drivers battling for the sport’s championship. Its history is filled with early race accidents, late-race controversy and close, hard racing. That peril, combined with the importance of Sunday’s race, will keep Chase drivers awake at night this week.
No. 14 Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) driver Tony Stewart knows exactly why “The Magic Mile” is such a threat to 16 Chase dreams year after year.
“Because it’s a mile racetrack that races like a short track,” Stewart said. “The corners are tight and flat. It doesn’t take much to get caught in somebody else’s problem. It’s historically a place that normally has caused some Chase contenders to be eliminated.”
Stewart needs a good finish at New Hampshire Sunday after he logged a 16th-place result at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois last weekend. Stewart is 12th in the Chase standings, just a point ahead of 13th place and the relegation zone.
History says Stewart should excel at New Hampshire, where he owns three wins, 15 top-five finishes and 19 top-10s and has led a total of 1,302 laps in his 34 career Sprint Cup starts. Stewart rallied from 22nd to finish second at New Hampshire in July. After missing the first eight races in 2016 due to an offseason injury, Stewart has posted seven top-10 finishes in 19 races in 2016.
“New Hampshire was a good race for us in the spring, but I mean some of the guys behind us are guys who are really good, too,” he said. “We are going to have to be on our game these next two weeks.”
This year marks Stewart’s last as a Sprint Cup driver, but it’s his first experience as a driver with the bracket format in a Chase. The format, created in 2014, divides the first nine races into three rounds with four drivers eliminated after every third race. The remaining four drivers will compete in a single-race championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.
Stewart needs to be in one of the top-12 spots after next week’s race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway to advance to the second round. As a keen student of motorsports, Stewart said he’s learned lessons watching SHR driver Kevin Harvick sail through the bracket format on his way to the 2014 championship and a second-place finish at Homestead in 2015.
“You got to remember I’ve been there as a car owner, seen it first-hand,” Stewart said. “I think we’ve seen what Kevin has done in each of these phases and how this format works. After each race, I was able to go back and analyze what his day was like and how his road to get to Homestead the last two years has played out. We have a good understanding of what we have to do.”
It won’t be all seriousness at New Hampshire this weekend despite the high stakes. Stewart will likely expedite his Saturday post-practice engineering debriefing to watch the Whelen Modified Tour’s 65th race on the New Hampshire track. The open-wheel cars are part of a tripleheader that includes the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the American Canadian Tour. The Modified race is often one of the more spectacular races of the season and a race Stewart tries to watch each year.
If a fourth Sprint Cup title is in Stewart’s future, then success Sunday at New Hampshire and again the following weekend at Dover are imperative for the future Hall of Famer.