Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Stewart's championship chances still small

Tony Stewart made a statement in a lot of minds Monday that he is not only a championship contender, but could be a favorite to win the championship this season.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Stewart looked strong at Chicago and would’ve had a good finish even if the race hadn’t come down to fuel mileage, and the future looks promising as the Sprint Cup Series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where teammate Ryan Newman won and Stewart finished second.

Those are all positives for Stewart’s championship hopes, but there’s still that lingering factor: The Chase has eight more races after New Hampshire.

Stewart has won at every track in the Chase at some point in his career and 17 of his 40 career wins have come at current Chase tracks.

However, the measure of a driver’s performance is usually more accurate based on how they have performed throughout the season more than throughout their career. Shoot, Jeff Burton has won at New Hampshire four times, but he finished 16th in the July race and has just one top 10 all season.

Just three weeks ago, Stewart was having trouble hanging onto the final spot in the Chase and had just come off of a stretch where he finished outside the top 10 in three of four races, including a dreadful 28th-place performance at Bristol.

We’ve seen other drivers, particularly Clint Bowyer, barely squeak into the Chase and then reel off a win or two at the start that throws them up into the top five in the points standings. But, those teams typically don’t sustain their success enough to truly contend for the championship.

Even 2007, the first year Bowyer made the Chase, he won the first race at New Hampshire and finished second twice more in the first five races of the Chase, but he still finished third, 346 points behind champion Jimmie Johnson.

Stewart could very well have turned a corner Monday and will contend for the championship all the way to Homestead, but 10th-place teams don’t usually turn into championship teams in 10 races.

The first 26 races of the season are typically a good barometer for how strong a team is in a given year. Plus, it’s much easier to drop from first to 10th, as Kyle Busch did in 2008, than it is to climb from 10th to first.

With its win at Chicago, the #14 team might have hit on a setup that will keep them near the top of the standings for the remainder of the Chase, but a fuel-mileage win in the first-place shouldn’t make that team the favorite to win it all.

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