NASCAR Wire Service
Only from Tony Stewart could a less-than-cheery forecast about his postseason chances be interpreted as a warning shot for his rivals. Then again, this song has been played before.
In 2011, Stewart entered the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs winless and distressed by his No. 14 Chevrolet’s sagging performance. Shortly after verbalizing his displeasure in blunt terms, Stewart reeled off five wins in 10 races to wear the Sprint Cup crown for a third time.
If orchestrating a repeat title is in the cards, it will begin in Sunday’s GEICO 400 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Chicagoland Speedway, site of round one in the 10-race Chase playoffs that will determine a series champion. The 1.5-mile track is where Stewart kick-started last year’s historic Chase run with a fuel-conservation victory.
Stewart has enjoyed considerably more success this season with three wins, but a lack of consistency during a mid-summer slump left him as the last driver to claim a playoff spot through the top 10 in points.
“I’m a little bit pessimistic again,” Stewart said Wednesday as part of Chase Media Day in Chicago. “I don’t feel like we’re as good as we need to be right now, but I feel like that we’re in a better position than we were last year, but I still don’t feel like we’re exactly where we need to be.”
Although the defending race and series champ isn’t happy with the slight decline, Stewart insists his gripes aren’t a reverse psychology ploy. He also says not to count on this Chase resembling any other 10-race home stretch since the playoff format was adopted in 2004.
“I honestly think it’s so hard to predict,” Stewart said. “None of us would’ve predicted that was going to happen last year. You look at all eight seasons that they’ve had the Chase and no two have repeated themselves. There’s no blueprint; there’s been no pattern. It’s literally a one-week-at-a-time scenario.”
Stewart’s title defense is made tougher by the competitive nature of the Chase field, which includes three other former Cup champions. Of the 12 title-eligible drivers, 10 of them have won championships in NASCAR’s top three national series.
“Somebody says this every year, but I feel like this is one of the most competitive Chases ever,” said Matt Kenseth, the last pre-Chase Cup champion in 2003. “. . . There’s really not anybody you can count out. Usually starting the Chase, you can pick out two or three guys and think they’re probably not going to have a shot at the championship, but I don’t feel like that this year.
“I feel like you’ve got 12 really quality, championship-caliber teams involved. I really think today, it’s anybody’s game.”