Yes, Tony Stewart, simply making the Chase is important, too

RIDGEWAY, VA - APRIL 05:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, is interviewed after practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP Gas Booster 500 on April 5, 2013 at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

RIDGEWAY, VA – APRIL 05: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, is interviewed after practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP Gas Booster 500 on April 5, 2013 at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

DOVER, Del. — With Sunday’s victory in the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway, Tony Stewart improved his chances of qualifying for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup exponentially.

Stewart jumped from a struggling 20th place in the standings without a win to 16th with a victory in hand. That gives him a leg up on one of the two Chase wild card spots, awarded to the drivers in positions 11 through 20 in the standings with the most wins.

Currently, Stewart is the only 11-20 driver who’s been first to a checkered flag.

After Sunday’s race, the three-time Cup champion said that simply making the Chase wasn’t a meaningful goal to him, unless he felt he was competitive enough to win the title.

“I’ve done this enough, and I’ve been in the Chase enough that being in the Chase is not a novelty for me,” Stewart said. “I don’t care about being in the Chase, unless I have the opportunity to win the championship.”

If that statement is sincere, then Stewart has had a memory lapse.

Just two years ago, the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet made the Chase as the ninth seed, and said essentially that he didn’t deserve to be there.

Despite finishing fourth at Michigan three races before the Chase field was set, Stewart discounted his chances for a title.

“I’ll be perfectly honest, at this point of the deal, if we are going to run this bad, it really doesn’t matter whether we make the Chase or not,” Stewart said after the race, “because we are going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else that actually can run for a championship is going to be trying take. Because our stuff is so bad right now, we’re wasting one of those top-12 spots right now.”

We all know what happened after that. Stewart won the first two Chase races to establish himself as a serious contender. He then won three of the final four races to beat Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker based on number of victories.

Had Stewart not made the Chase that year, even with his performance entering the Chase not up to par, he wouldn’t have been eligible for the championship.

So when Stewart says that making the Chase isn’t as important as making progress within his Stewart-Haas organization, take it with a grain of salt. You can’t win the title unless you’re in the Chase, and as Stewart proved in 2011, any driver in the top 12 can come from behind to grab the championship.

STEWART: RESTART FAVORS SECOND-PLACE DRIVERS

Jimmie Johnson may not like the call that dropped him from first to 17th in Sunday’s race, but under the current parameters, NASCAR’s call was the right one, and it was consistent with the decision the sanctioning body made in black-flagging Elliott Sadler in last year’s Nationwide Series debut at Indianapolis.

With 19 laps left in Sunday’s race at Dover, Johnson restarted from the second spot to the inside of race leader Juan Pablo Montoya, who appeared to spin his tires in the restart zone near the exit of Turn 4, defined by red lines on the wall.

Johnson edged ahead of Montoya before the cars reached the end of the restart zone, and by the time the cars reached the start/finish line, Johnson was two car-lengths ahead. NASCAR assessed a drive-through penalty to the No. 48 Chevrolet, and Johnson went from the lead to a lap down.

Tony Stewart, who had an excellent view of the proceedings, said that, in general, the restart zone favors the second-place driver, even though the leader has lane choice.

“The zone we have to restart in is not very conducive to being leader-friendly,” Stewart said. “Most of the time the guy that’s second has a huge advantage and most of the time will lay back and roll the start and play it to his advantage.

“There can be some adjustments made to the restart zone. My opinion, if you lengthen that restart zone and give the leader more flexibility of where they pick the restart up at, it takes away that opportunity for the second-place guy to take advantage of the restarts.”

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