It’s not going to be easy, but the task is pretty simple.
If Tony Stewart wants to keep his hopes for a fourth career Sprint Cup title in his final year of NASCAR competition alive, he’ll need to walk out of Dover (Del.) Inte
rnational Speedway late Sunday afternoon with the trophy, or land in the top 12 among the 16 drivers in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs. Stewart arrives in Delaware 15th, just 11 points out of 12th, after two of the three first-round races that will ultimately eliminate a quarter of the Chase field.
Nobody knows the situation or the urgency any better than Stewart, who’ll be gunning for a strong run or a win Sunday that assures advancement to the second round. With more than a dozen of the Chase drivers aiming for the same result, the last 50 laps on the
high-speed, high-banked, concrete mile oval could be some of the best racing of the season.
Stewart said the high-stakes, intense racing expected Sunday in Dover and throughout the remaining Chase races is why the bracket format was added in 2014.
“What we have seen the last couple of years is a very good example of how chaotic and hectic each phase of the playoffs are,” he said. “There is so much emphasis on winning that guys are going way above what they normally do just to ensure they go to the next round. There’s no lack of intensity there. It seems like the further into the Chase you get, that energy and intensity ramp up.”
Stewart is 15th in the Chase because he logged a 16th-place result at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois in the Chase opener and finished 23rd at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon last weekend. History says Stewart should excel at Dover, where he owns three wins, 11 top-five finishes and 17 top-10s and has led a total of 1,075 laps in his 34 career Sprint Cup starts. Stewart is the only driver in Sunday’s field to race at Dover in an Indycar – in 1998, he won the pole and finished eighth. His pole speed that weekend was 185.204 mph – about 25 mph faster than Friday’s expected Sprint Cup pole speed.
Stewart didn’t enjoy his most recent trip to the “Monster Mile” in May, when a multicar accident minutes into Friday practice forced him to a backup car. Stewart started 34th and raced as high as 15th and looked to be in contention for a top-10 finish. But those hopes faded when his car’s track bar broke, rupturing an oil line and ending his race with 58 laps to go and a 34th-place finish.
“Dover’s been a good track to us in the past but hasn’t been lately,” said Stewart, who hasn’t posted a top-10 finish at Dover since he won the spring 2013 race. “Hopefully, this weekend will be different.”
Stewart’s car will have a different look this weekend on the Delaware concrete high banks. It will carry the all-brown, Nature’s Bakery Double Chocolate Brownies paint scheme for the first time this season.
No matter what happens Sunday in Dover, Stewart’s 18th and final season in the sport has been a study in perseverance and, ultimately, success. After missing the first eight races in 2016 due to an offseason injury, Stewart has posted five top-fives and seven top-10s in 20 races. The highlight of the season came with his 49th career victory at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in June.
Stewart won’t be above scoreboard watching on Sunday. Not only will he keep track of the drivers he’s close to in points, he’ll also monitor the progress of fellow Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Kevin Harvick, whose victory at New Hampshire last weekend secured a spot in the second round, and Kurt Busch, who sits 11th in the Chase with a 20-point cushion over 13th place.
Dover promises to be a momentous weekend for Stewart and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.