Tony Stewart has no problem with the opening round of the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup beginning at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Stewart, the driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), has a series-best three wins at the 1.5-mile oval and only two finishes outside the top-10.
Stewart padded his Chicagoland statistics Sunday, as his sixth-place finish in the Geico 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race gave Stewart his 10th top-10 in 12 career Sprint Cup starts at Chicagoland.
“We probably passed more cars than anybody today, so not exactly what we were looking for,” said Stewart after logging his 13th top-10 finish of 2012. “We were just a little bit off and we’ll keep working on it, but if we can be a little bit off and end up with a top-10, then we’re in good shape.”
Stewart’s sixth-place result took a lot of effort. He started 28th, and after climbing all the way to 11th, Stewart had to go right back to where he started when a pit-road miscue during his second scheduled stop while under caution forced him to return to pit road. Instead of having one, two-tire pit stop that would’ve put him in the top-10, Stewart had two, two-tire pit stops that jettisoned him to 28th when the race restarted on lap 71.
“If we can just get a break, we’ll be right back in this thing,” Stewart said over the radio.
Again Stewart drove to the front, rising to sixth before a round of green-flag pit stops began on lap 134.
Stewart’s pit stop came off without a hitch. But as the jack dropped and Stewart left his pit box, the caution flag waved for Casey Mears’ accident in turn two. Just like that, Stewart was a lap down, and he was forced to take advantage of the “wave around” rule, which allows any car that doesn’t pit under caution to get a lap back if every car on the lead lap does pit.
Stewart was back on the lead lap in ninth place when the race restarted on lap 157. He cracked the top-five before the caution flew for the final time on lap 189 for Jeff Gordon’s crash in turn one.
Stewart and SHR teammate Ryan Newman each took four tires on the subsequent round of pit stops, while others took only two. When the race restarted on lap 194, the top-six drivers had taken only two tires. Newman and Stewart were the best of the four-tire brigade, and they lined up seventh and eighth, respectively.
The race went green the rest of the way, which meant one final round of crucially timed, green-flag pit stops was in order.
Stewart made his stop for fuel and four tires on lap 235. Good to go the distance on gas, Stewart cut fast laps right until the checkered flag dropped, trailing Newman across the stripe in sixth.
Newman’s fifth-place finish in his No. 39 Gene Haas Foundation/Workshops For Warriors Chevrolet marked his fourth top-five finish of 2012 and his third top-five in 11 career Sprint Cup starts at Chicagoland.
SHR driver Danica Patrick, who is driving the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing via a collaborative agreement with SHR, finished 25th. It was her best career Sprint Cup finish, coming in her sixth Sprint Cup start and her first at Chicagoland.
Brad Keselowski won the Geico 400 to score his eighth career Sprint Cup victory, his fourth of the season and his first at Chicagoland.
Jimmie Johnson, who led four times for a race-high 172 laps, finished 3.171 seconds behind Keselowski in the runner-up spot. Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Newman rounded out the top-five. Stewart, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were four caution periods for 23 laps, with 11 drivers failing to finish the 267-lap race.
Stewart is representing SHR in this year’s Chase and entered the first race of the Chase seeded third among the 12 Chase drivers, three points behind No. 1 seed Denny Hamlin. Stewart leaves Chicagoland still in third, eight points behind new Chase leader Keselowski.
Newman moved up two spots to 14th in the standings with 773 points, 41 back of 13th-place Busch. Patrick is running a 10-race Sprint Cup schedule and only accumulates points in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
With nine races remaining before a champion is crowned after the season finale Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the top-12 drivers competing for the title rank as follows:
1. Brad Keselowski (2,056 points) +3 positions
2. Jimmie Johnson (2,053 points, -3) +/-0
3. Tony Stewart (2,048 points, -8) +/-0
4. Denny Hamlin (2,041 points -15) -3
5. Kasey Kahne (2,041 points, -15) +6
6. Clint Bowyer (2,041 points, -15) +/-0
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2,039 points, -17) +/-0
8. Greg Biffle (2,037 points, -19) -3
9. Martin Truex Jr. (2,035 points, -21) +1
10. Kevin Harvick (2,032 points, -24) -1
11. Matt Kenseth (2,030 points, -26) -3
12. Jeff Gordon (2,009 points, -47) +/-0
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule – the second race of the 10-race Chase – is the Sylvania 300 on Sept. 23 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. The race begins at 2 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with a pre-race show at 1 p.m.