CHICAGO, Ill. – All it took was a sly smile and an exaggerated wink to understand what Tony Stewart was really saying.
“I’m wasting a spot here,” Stewart quipped, echoing the sentiment he expressed before the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
After downplaying his chances five years ago, however, Stewart proceeded to win the first two Chase races and ultimately beat Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker for his third Cup title.
On Thursday afternoon in the Ready.Set.Chase Launch Event at the Bridgeport Art Center’s Skyline Loft, Stewart wasn’t about to change his approach.
“I’m going back to 2011 notes, and that’s where I’m standing, man,” Stewart said. “I’m very superstitious.”
But there are distinct differences between then and now. In 2011, Stewart hadn’t won a race when the Chase started. This year, he qualified for the 10-race playoff with a strategic victory at Sonoma, and with the speed he’s shown this year, handicappers probably have a higher opinion of his chances than they did five years ago.
Then again, Stewart has never competed in the current Chase format, with three-race elimination rounds and a championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I’m ready to go this weekend, and I’ll take it a race at a time,” Stewart said. “I mean, this Chase is going to be pretty intense in itself. You’ve got 16 great drivers in here. You got three-week segments where you keep knocking four guys off.
“So it’s going to be pretty crazy these last 10 weeks.”
In a six-race stretch following his Sonoma win, Stewart finished second once and fifth three times, but he enters the Chase short on momentum—with consecutive results of 30th, 21st, 35th and 33rd.
But as Stewart proved dramatically with five Chase wins in 2011, the previous 26 races don’t matter much when the championship is on the line.