The midwest has it’s share of NASCAR drivers and midwesterners love cheering for their favorite guys and gals on the track – especially at Chicagoland Speedway, the first race in every drivers’ quest to win a coveted Sprint Cup championship.
Last year, Indiana native Tony Stewart, won at Chicagoland Speedway inspiring everyone by getting his first of five wins in the ten-race Chase and his third Cup championship. His #14 team went from, Stewart’s own assessment of not even belonging in the field of title contenders, to becoming the best of the rest and winning the 2011 Sprint Cup trophy.
That inspiration is on every contenders’ mind – including Tony Stewart’s – as the Geico 400 race approaches on Sunday, September 16th. “…a year ago, I didn’t even think we belonged in the Chase,” says Stewart. “To go from that mindset to winning five races and winning the championship, I mean, no matter how you feel sitting here today, you know it’s possible.”
The other contenders should take note though that no other Sprint Cup driver has more wins at Chicagoland than Stewart – three; or laps led – 431; or average finish – 8.7; or a better average running position – 7.7. Of Chicagoland’s 11 Sprint Cup races since 2001, Stewart has earned a pole, three wins, four top-twos, five top-threes and eight top-fives.
Stewart is “King of the Road” at Chicagoland and he returns to the 1.5-mile oval on the outskirts of the Windy City as the defending winner of the Geico 400. But also as the defending Sprint Cup champ.
Rallying from a 26th-place starting position and after stretching his fuel mileage in the final 50+ laps of last year’s Geico 400, Stewart won his series-leading third race at the track and is just the second driver to win the championship after winning the first Chase race, joining Kurt Busch who accomplished the feat in 2004.
Stewart, however, isn’t relying on his stats as he prepares for this year’s first Chase race, but also admits he likes this midwestern track.
“…I don’t watch the stats very much…Technology in this sport changes so fast. What was good the last time you were there doesn’t mean it’s going to be good the second time around. You constantly have to work. You’ve got to keep pushing the envelope,” Stewart says. ”It’s a place I like. This place is really getting racy as far as being able to move around and change lines and run anywhere from the bottom to the top. It’s a fun track because of that.”
Sprint Cup contenders most likely also recall that last year’s title was essentially a points tie with the decision coming down to Stewart’s five wins versus – another midwestern driver – Carl Edward’s one win for the 2011 season. This year, with only 12-points separating top-seeded Denny Hamlin, with four wins and Jeff Gordon, with one win, as the #2 wild-card holder in the 12th position, it’s once again all about winning over the next ten races and getting every point possible.
Stewart confirms this winning strategy when he says, “I think if anything, everybody is real conscious of the fact that one spot – that one point – can make such a big difference after last year. I think you’re going to see guys fighting hard to lead a lap. You’re going to see guys fighting really hard to lead the most laps and to get everything they can get. The dynamic of it is just a little different than what it was last year.”
Stewart is currently the only driver to have won a championship under the old season-long format – 2002, a championship under the ten-driver Chase format – 2005 and the current 12-driver Chase format – 2011. So does he feel any sense of historic significance in that achievement?
“Honestly, not as much as I should,” Stewart said. “It’s such a good feeling knowing that we’ve had that opportunity. Obviously, things have changed a lot in the last couple of years with the way the Chase is constructed. But just to have the opportunity each year is something every team is striving for. Now that we’re locked into that position, we’ve got ten weeks to go out there and make that become a reality again.”
In just ten weeks the 2012 season will be in the books and fans will know the outcome of this year’s Chase race for 12 of the best drivers in NASCAR. It all begins this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
Hang on fans, it looks to be another exciting ride all the way to the finish line at Homestead-Miami in November.