Tony Stewart knows all too well that the first 26 weeks of the Sprint Cup Series won’t mean much if you can’t produce in the final 10.
All he has to do is look back to last year for proof.
Stewart limped into the Chase in 2011 and then caught fire, reeling off five victories on his way to his third Sprint Cup title.
His position is almost the exact opposite this season, as the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet has been a consistent winner early, finding his way to Victory Lane three times and sitting a comfortable eighth in the standings with four races to go before the Chase begins.
None of that matters, though, when the Chase begins Sept. 16 in Chicago.
“We proved last year that everything you do in those first 26 weeks really doesn’t count,” said Stewart, who was at Texas Motor Speedway on Wednesday as part of his annual Smoke Show to raise money for Speedway Children’s Charities. “It’s just what happens those last 10 weeks. It was like being in an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (last season). The first 26 weeks I was going to have a Britney Spears moment where I was going to shave my head and everything else at some point during the year. It was like we literally couldn’t do anything right.”
There has been no need for Stewart to shave his head this year.
Instead, despite having a new crew chief in place this season in Steve Addington, Stewart has been a solid contender from the start of the season and has been able to take chances as the Chase approaches.
He gambled last weekend at Watkins Glen and lost, sending a car with top-five potential to a 19th-place finish after a late spin. It’s the kind of gamble he can take this season for bonus points for races won. Last year he entered the Chase without a win.
“We’re pretty comfortable that we’re not going to have to get worried about getting bumped out at this point,” he said. “The biggest thing is working on consistency. If we can get another win, that’s great, obviously the more bonus points we get. That’s kind of the position I was in this weekend.”
Not everything has been perfect for Stewart in his title defense. He’s managed just three top 10s in the past six races and has been searching for the reason for that lost consistency. He knows that it has to come by the time the Chase begins because a bad race or two in the final 10 can doom title hopes.
“I wish I knew why we weren’t consistent right now,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to identify. The hardest part is trying to figure out what the problem really is.”
Stewart knows the problem doesn’t have to do with him being ready to race. He’s always willing to get behind the wheel, and has done so even more this year.
That’s hard to believe because in addition to driving, Stewart is also a team owner. And that role has included working with Danica Patrick in her first season in the Sprint Cup Series.
But because Stewart has been able to surround himself with the right people at Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s been at the track more.
He’s slated to race 50 times in Sprint Cars in addition to his regular Sprint Cup schedule. That extra time behind the wheel has helped.
“I feel like I’m as sharp as I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’ve won eight Sprint Car races. All around, I’m as good as I’ve been in a long time. I’m ready for the Chase to start. I feel like we’re ready to go. Go get us some golf carts. I’ll race anybody right now.”