Wild-card contenders seeking wins

Many people are wondering, following his win Sunday at Dover International Speedway, if this is the start of one of Tony Stewart’s patented hot streaks. Other than last year, Tony has a history of coming to life in the summer months, ironically after the Indianapolis 500 has been run.

For Tony’s sake, I sure hope that is the case, because as bad as he and his Stewart-Haas Racing team have struggled this first part of the season, he needs something to get hot. I think this also shows a great example of how a team can re-group, stay focused and more importantly come together as a unit at a very critical time of the year.

Tony’s group tested at Dover, where their record the last three years has been very underwhelming. He then got a lap down in the race on Sunday, but then got the Lucky Dog that allowed him to get back on the lead lap. His team continued to work on the car, getting it better and better all afternoon. Then he was in position to take advantage of the circumstances and won the race. I just think it’s a great tribute to the whole organization for not losing their heads when everyone around them was saying the sky was falling.

There are a lot of people, including Tony, who are outside the top 10 in points. Those two wilde-card spots are critical and, now with his win, Tony definitely is in the catbird’s seat to get one of those spots. I still believe, however, that he’s going to need to get at least one more if not two more wins to guarantee a wild-card spot.

Tony can’t take anything for granted, because there are still a lot of threats out there like Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and, of course, Kurt Busch who is running extremely well each and every week. He needs to put together some consecutive top-10 finishes to get him higher in the points, or he might fall back into the clutches of someone else with one win who has a better points position than Tony.

As an organization, I hope they now all focus on getting that No. 14 car in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, no matter what the cost. If they do that, then maybe they can get lucky like they did a year ago and Ryan Newman can make it in as well. The key, though, is you have to get one car in this year’s Chase before worrying about getting a second one in.

Now for Denny Hamlin, he needs to regroup yet again. Obviously, everyone knows the story of how he was forced to miss races earlier this year following his back injury. That said, those first two weeks back in the car showed everyone how quickly Denny could reel in very valuable points. Unfortunately, at Dover he took a step back with a wreck that saw him finish in 34th position.

Honestly, I think it all boils down to what that driver believes. If Denny believes he can make it into the Chase, then I believe he will. If Denny doesn’t believe he can, then it’s simple – he won’t. When he first got back in that car and got those top-five finishes, obviously his confidence was sky-high. Dover was a stumbling block. It was a hiccup, if you will. Has it damaged his confidence? Has it aggravated his healing back? All those factors might come into play and give us a whole different scenario for Denny for the remainder of 2013.

So, again, I think it’s all in Denny’s attitude to whether he makes it into the 2013 Chase. He and his Joe Gibbs Racing team obviously have the talent behind the wheel, on the pit box and in the pit crew to make it into the top 20 in points. At the end of the day, however, they are going to have to win some races. I still maintain the magic number of wins is two for Denny, Tony Stewart and any of the other guys outside the top 10 in points to snag a wild-card spot.

Jeff Gordon showed me at Dover for the first time this season that he and his Hendrick Motorsports team’s program was coming together and he had the chance to win a race. They are finally starting to put together some runs, which is perfect timing when you consider some of Jeff’s favorite racetracks are coming up. So, I think they are headed in the right direction.

Kurt Busch, obviously, has got a bad-fast race car. As a whole, the team, including the driver, hasn’t been able to put a whole race together. They are just missing something. Maybe it’s communication. Maybe it’s working on strategy. It’s all totally understandable because remember, this is Kurt’s first season with that team. Once they iron out some of these issues, Kurt Busch has as legitimate a shot of making the 2013 Chase as anyone else.
 

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