Obviously, if Tony Stewart makes the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup this season, it will be good for him.
But perhaps equally – if not more so – it would be good for NASCAR to have Stewart in the Chase, as well.
That may seem rather simplistic. Any driver that makes the Chase is a good thing for NASCAR. But Stewart is a special case for several reasons.
First, this is obviously his final season as a Sprint Cup driver. He’ll retire at season’s end – and what better way to call it a career than to earn his fourth Sprint Cup championship, which would tie him with Jeff Gordon for fourth place on the all-time championship list: (Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt have seven each, and Jimmie Johnson has six).
Second, making the Chase would verify that Stewart still has it as a driver, something that many began to doubt over the last three seasons, or at least up until he won at Sonoma late last month, his first win since 2013, more than three years ago.
Third, Stewart could very well follow the same path Kyle Busch took en route to last year’s championship. Busch had to win at least one race and be scored in the top 30 in the Sprint Cup standings after last September’s final Chase qualifying race at Richmond.
As it turned out, Busch had more than enough points and places in the standings to qualify.
Stewart, on the other hand, has the win he needs to qualify for the Chase and after last Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, now finds himself in 30th place in the Sprint Cup standings.
If the Chase were to start today, Stewart would make it.
But that’s the key, the Chase does not start today. There are still nine more races to complete before we’ll definitively know whether Stewart makes the 10-race playoff or not.
Much like Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races last season, Stewart missed the first eight Sprint Cup events of 2016 after suffering a back injury in an off-road ATV accident in late January.
And also like Busch last year, many were surprised Stewart came back as quickly as he did. There were dire predictions that he’d miss at least the first half (18 races) of the season all the way to the entire 2016 campaign.
But Stewart is one of the most determined athletes I’ve ever known or covered. Sure, he didn’t want a big fuss over this being his retirement season, but at the same time, he also didn’t want to miss it, either.
He worked perhaps as hard as he ever has to not only come back, but to come back strong and put himself in a position to win again – which is exactly what he did at Sonoma.
And given the way he’s raced the last few weeks, I’m not going to be surprised to see Stewart reach victory lane at least one more time before the Chase actually gets underway.
He has a good shot to win at any of the nine remaining pre-Chase tracks. But if I had to make a prediction, I can see Stewart having the best chance of winning again at upcoming places like New Hampshire, Bristol, Michigan and Richmond.
This will be the 13th edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and the third under the new format that was adopted and implemented in 2014.
We’ve already seen anything can happen under the new format, including Busch winning last year despite some of the steepest odds any driver has endured to win a championship. There was also Ryan Newman finishing runner-up without earning even one win in 2014.
Granted, Jeff Gordon made it to the final round of last year’s Chase, but fell short of bowing out of the sport as a champion. Maybe what Gordon failed to accomplish, Stewart will.
Which leads me back to my point about Stewart making the Chase would indeed be good for NASCAR. Think of it, even if you’re not a Stewart fan, wouldn’t you like to see him go out with at least having a chance at winning the championship?
Think of the drivers who’ve missed the Chase at some point in their careers, guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who missed the playoffs four times between 2005 and 2010.
You can’t tell me the Chase wouldn’t have been that much better or stronger – especially from a fan’s standpoint – if Junior had made it those years.
Or how about when six-time champ Jimmie Johnson came into last year’s Chase with a full head of steam, only to be one of the biggest shockers in Chase history by being eliminated after the first round?
Or how about the years Stewart has missed the Chase (2006, as well as 2013 through 2015)? Can you tell me those Chase editions wouldn’t have been more exciting and perhaps would have wound up differently if Stewart were in them?
I’m fully convinced that if Stewart does make the Chase – and particularly if he finds a way to reach the final round and potentially ride off into retirement as a champ – it could be one of the best things to happen to NASCAR in a long, long time.