Traditionally, when the weather heats up, so does Tony Stewart.
Stewart, nicknamed Smoke, is among a handful of drivers needing to catch fire on the race track. And soon. Entering Kentucky Speedway’s Quaker State 400 late Saturday night, 10 races remained for drivers to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Stewart is one of the biggest names still winless in a quality field of Sprint Cup drivers looking for that coveted victory. NASCAR changed the Chase rules for 2014 by expanding the field to 16 and adding knock-out rounds once the Chase starts. Drivers are practically guaranteed a Chase spot with a win-and-you’re in scenario. If more than 16 drivers log wins in a season then ties will be broken by the point standings.
If less than 16 drivers win a race the standings will be used to fill out the remaining spots.
That has defending Kentucky Speedway race winner Matt Kenseth sitting in the driver’s seat. He was fourth in points entering Kentucky.
“As far as the urgency to get a win, yeah, you want to get one. In this new format you really need at least a win and be up in the top 30 (in points) to really feel confident about being in the Chase,” Kenseth said. “I feel like we’re doing everything we can do to (win). We’ve just going to keep trying to get our cars faster, keep trying to get in position to win more, and if you can put yourself in that spot enough times, sooner or later you’ll get one.”
Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne — all above Stewart in the Sprint Cup points — were also winless entering Kentucky.
“I get asked somewhere between 10 and 70 times a day when we are going to win, depending on how many people I see,” Kenseth said. “It would be nice to check that off so we don’t have to answer that question any more.”
Stewart fans also shouldn’t be worried. Yet.
Quick starts have never been the Eldora Speedway owner’s trademark. Stewart has won at least one race in his 15 Sprint Cup seasons. Only three times in a season has he won in the first 10 races.
On the flip side, only twice in his career has he waited for a win past the 26th race. He needed 27 races to win in 2011 and needed 30 for his first victory in 2008.
That means under the new format Stewart would have qualified for the Chase in 13 of his 15 seasons.
As for his trademark summer hot streak, eight of Stewart’s initial wins in a season have come during races 11 through 20.
“I don’t think there is ever a point where especially with this format that you get panicked,” Stewart said recently. “You don’t have to be stellar in the points, you just have to get a win. I think you get six or eight weeks before Richmond and then you start panicking if you don’t have that win. I think it’s still too early to panic, at least for us.”