Making it into the Top Twelve
15 June 2010
Tony Stewart is a lock to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Big deal, you say. It doesn't take a crystal ball to make that prediction.
After all, consecutive top-five finishes at Pocono and Michigan have moved Stewart to 11th in points, and his program is on the upswing at the time of year when performance usually picks up for the Rushville Rocket.
It might surprise you considerably more, however, to learn that Juan Pablo Montoya—currently 20th in the Cup standings—also is a likely Chase driver for many of the same reasons Stewart is a shoo-in.
The schedule favors both drivers, and that's why Stewart isn't the least bit nervous about his Chase prospects.
“I'm not as panicked about the top 12 right now as I think some of the guys that are close to that bubble,” Stewart said after Sunday's strong fifth-place run at Michigan. “We've just got to keep going out, and if we keep riffling off top fives like this, we won't have to worry about it. We'll be there.”
Stewart has ample reason to be confident. First of all, he has at least one victory at each of the 11 racetracks the Cup series will visit before the Chase starts. Further, 25 of his 37 career wins have come at those racetracks.
Stewart has won twice at the Infineon Raceway road course, the next stop on the Cup tour. At the series' other road course, Watkins Glen, he has five victories in 11 starts. Stewart has taken the checkered flag three times at Daytona, all in July when the track is slicker and much to his liking.
At the vaunted Brickyard, he has won twice and finished in the top 10 in seven of 11 starts. And at Richmond, the venue that hosts the cutoff race for the Chase, Stewart has three victories.
Stewart's enhanced prospects have coincided with improved performance from the Stewart-Haas Racing team he co-owns.
“I'm pretty excited about it,” Stewart said after Sunday's race. “That's the best car we've had in a long time, so I'm really proud of our guys. We're definitely gaining on it. I felt racy today.”
Montoya's path to the Chase is much more challenging, with very little margin for error, but the remaining schedule should give him more than a glimmer of hope.
At Infineon in 2007, Montoya picked up his only Cup win. At Indianapolis last year, he dominated, only to be foiled by a pit-road speeding penalty. Astute strategy from crew chief Brian Pattie has helped Montoya to three straight top 10s at Pocono.
Last year, starting at Infineon, Montoya ran off a string of nine straight finishes of 12th or better, including a runner-up finish in the August race at Pocono.
True, Montoya is 20th in the standings. Last year at this same juncture, he was 14th and 43 points behind Jeff Burton in 12th. Far more daunting is his current deficit to 12th-place Mark Martin—189 points. And to make the Chase, Montoya will have to pass eight drivers.
In reality, the two road courses alone should enable him to leap-frog past four or five of the drivers ahead of him in the standings. The critical part of the schedule for Montoya starts with the return trip to Michigan, followed by visits to Bristol, Atlanta (arguably his best intermediate track) and Richmond.
If Montoya can get past the two short tracks with decent finishes, the schedule favors a Montoya rally. The rest is up to him.
To make the Chase, Montoya will have to rediscover the same calculating, methodical approach that got him there last year over this same stretch of races. In Sunday's race at Michigan, Montoya and his team couldn't quite find the right balance to race for the win.
“We just couldn't get where we needed to be at the end of the race, so we'll take what we've learned and move on to the next race,” said Montoya, who finished 13th.
The next race is at Infineon, and for Montoya's Chase hopes, that's a good thing.