KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – The task for Tony Stewart Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway is simple. Win and he’s in.
The Federated Auto Parts 400 is the last race of the regular season before the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins in earnest Sept. 20 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois. Sixteen drivers will make the Chase, and four of those spots remain up for grabs at Richmond.
The 11 Sprint Cup drivers who have won at least one race this year are locked into the Chase. Jamie McMurray, currently 12th in the preliminary Chase standings, simply needs to start the Federated Auto Parts 400 to clinch his Chase berth. The remaining four spots are held by winless drivers who are the highest in points – Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer. But should someone new win Saturday night – someone like Stewart – one of those non-winners will be sent home.
Stewart, whose favorite school subject was math, knows his formula for making his ninth Chase appearance is as basic as it gets. Should he wheel his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing to his 49th career Sprint Cup win and fourth at Richmond, he’ll be a member of the 2015 Chase. If he finishes second, another Chase run will have to wait until next year.
The win-and-you’re-in concept is easy in theory, but hard in execution. Nonetheless, it has been done. And even when the odds are stacked high, one good race can unleash a torrent of success.
Stewart knows this firsthand. Four years ago Stewart arrived in Richmond winless on the season and not quite locked into the Chase. He earned a spot in the Chase via his point standing, but Stewart openly claimed he was just taking up space. Nonetheless, when the 2011 Chase started at Chicagoland, Stewart caught fire. He won. Then he won again, and again, and again and again. Five wins in a 10-race span brought Stewart his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, and it seemingly came out of nowhere.
It will take an out-of-nowhere victory for Stewart to try and replicate the lightning he caught in a bottle in the fall of 2011, but since his make-it-or-break-it race is at Richmond, count nothing out.
The .75-mile oval is Stewart’s favorite racetrack across all of the venues the Sprint Cup Series visits. It’s where he earned his first career Sprint Cup win in just his 25th start. It’s a track where he raced prior to his successful NASCAR career, where he ran a USAC Midget and Silver Crown car on his way up the racing ladder.
Since his maiden Sprint Cup victory, Stewart has earned two more Sprint Cup wins at Richmond and tallied 11 top-fives and 19 top-10s with a total of 950 laps led. Augmenting those numbers are a pair of wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and (2002 and 2003) and a Late Model victory (2012).
After a throwback theme last weekend at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, Stewart is looking to keep the retro vibe going by pulling on his past success at Richmond to throw him into this year’s Chase.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How much has changed since 1999?
“Everything about the sport has changed since ’99. The cars have changed. The horsepower has changed. The tires have changed. The people have changed. The entire sport has changed. The thing that’s still the same is you’ve got the greatest cars and the greatest drivers trying to win the race each week.”
How hard is it to win in the sport today?
“I think it depends on who you are. If you’re Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch then it isn’t too difficult. I think for the most part it’s just really hard to win. You have to have everything go your way, and then to have that happen on any given day – it’s not easy. We’ve struggled this year, but knowing how hard it is to win these races, it makes me appreciate that I’ve been able to do that and do it more than just once or twice in my career.”
What does it take to be successful at Richmond?
“As much as you’re racing everybody else, you have to race the racetrack. It just seems like a place where if you can get the balance right it makes it an extremely fun day. With the two ends of the track being different like they are, it seems like you’re always fighting something, but that’s what always makes the racing good, too. You never really get anybody who gets their car perfect. Even the guy that gets the lead still isn’t happy with his car. So, it’s really trying to find that balance and trying to figure out how to balance both ends of the track together.”
You’ve had a lot of success at Richmond and we’ve heard you say it’s one of your favorite tracks. What is it about Richmond that you like so much?
“It’s not one of my favorite tracks, it is my favorite track. It’s the perfect-sized track for a Cup race. The other short tracks we run – Bristol and Martinsville – they’re cool in their own right, but there’s a lot of congestion at those two tracks. But at Richmond, it just seems like that extra quarter-mile, and that three-quarter-mile shape, and how wide the groove gets there, allows for good racing. It seems like we have to race ourselves and race the racetrack versus racing each other a lot of times. You do have to race each other, obviously, but there are a lot of times during the race when you have the flexibility to move around on the racetrack and try to find a spot your car likes better than somewhere else. A lot of times on a short track you don’t have the flexibility. You’re more narrowed down with what groove you’re going to be in. It is literally the favorite track of mine on the circuit.”