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Caraviello: Leader Stewart trying to buck Chase precedent

September 28, 2011, David Caraviello,

Previous drivers in Stewart's position have watched others celebrate title

By all appearances, Tony Stewart has seized control of this Chase for the Sprint Cup. With two race victories in as many playoff weeks, a pair of out-of-the-blue wins for a program that struggled so much of the season, the last man to win the crown not named Jimmie Johnson has risen unexpectedly to the top of the point standings and positioned himself as the leading candidate to end the No. 48 team's unprecedented five-year reign over NASCAR's premier series.

For the moment, at least. The point totals among the top four drivers are so small, that it's very possible those standings could be reversed after Sunday's third round of the Chase at Dover International Speedway. No question, Stewart has made a statement that his uneven regular season is behind him, and that he's going to be a factor in this. But despite the No. 14 team's somewhat unexpected surge, despite the fact that Johnson, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon still have rather substantial deficits to make up, despite the fact that Stewart has gotten great fuel mileage in a year where saving gas may be the difference, the leader's position is far from secure. He's been through this enough times to know that.

"The reality of it is, you look at guys that are in the back half of the Chase right now, they're guys that a lot of people expected to be in the top five, top three in the points right now," he said after his victory Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway. "It shows that one or two bad days can put you in a bad spot pretty quick. As much as we want to sit here and beat our chest and be proud of what we've done, and we are proud of what we've done these first two weeks, we've got eight hard weeks to go here."

Particularly given that, should Stewart go on to win the whole thing, he'd be bucking Chase precedent. In the seven previous seasons of the playoff, the leader after the first two races has never gone on to win the championship. The past four years, the leader after Dover -- which had been the second race until this season, when it was shuffled back a week to third to accommodate Chicagoland as the new opener -- has wound up second after the finale at Homestead. One fell as far as seventh, which was the unfortunate fate that befell Jeff Burton in 2006. The average Chase finishing position of the leader after two races is a wholly unsatisfying 3.28.

Granted, we're talking more about numbers here than people, and statistics compiled during the relatively short lifespan of a playoff system that's undergoing a little flux. There's the introduction of a new element in this points format, which tightens the gaps between drivers, but also seems to make it more difficult to gain ground. There's the fact that Johnson is buried deeper than he's ever been in the Chase standings, 10th place, and faces a 29-point deficit that translates to roughly 120 under the previous system. There's the fact that Stewart is only the second driver to win the two opening Chase races -- along with Greg Biffle in 2008 -- and at Dover has the chance to join Johnson as the only drivers to win three in a row in the postseason.

* Video: Watch as Stewart gets off to good start in Chase

Those are the variables. The constants are those who have stood in Stewart's driving shoes before at this point, and ultimately come up short. Gordon led after two races in the inaugural Chase and wound up third. The next year it was Johnson, who finished fifth. In 2006 Burton set the pace all the way through Charlotte before plummeting to seventh. The next four years, the leaders after the second Chase race all ended up second in the final standings, trampled one after the other -- Gordon, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin -- by the Jimmie Johnson juggernaut. And the last driver to sweep the first two playoff races? Biffle never led the standings because of the gaps in seeding heading into the Chase, but he climbed as high as second before finishing third, 217 points back.

So anyone looking for guarantees at this point will find none. If anything, an opening salvo like the one Stewart has fired typically serves only to keep a driver in it until the end, giving him a chance at the championship -- which, really, is all anyone can ask for at this point. It certainly beats the alternative, which is to fall into an early crater and spend the next eight weeks crawling out, something only Johnson has proven adept at, and that in years where he was a much bigger threat to reach Victory Lane on a repeat basis than he his now. So barring a slide back into their old ways (which, with this team, came as recently as a three-lap down, 28th-place finish at Bristol five weeks ago), you have to think Stewart has at least positioned himself to make a real run at a third career title.

But he's right to hold off on any celebration. At this point in 2004, inaugural Chase winner Kurt Busch was in second place, one point back. The next year, eventual champion Stewart was fifth, 23 behind. Johnson was famously mired in eighth place, 136 points back after two races in 2006, and would overcome a deficit that maxed out at 156 with six events left. Johnson stood third after the first two races of the 2007 Chase, and second at the same point in the next three years. The furthest he was ever behind in terms of points during that span was 35, in arrears to Hamlin last season. The average standing of the eventual champion after two races during the history of the Chase? Just a hair over third.

So make room in that trophy case, Brad Keselowski! OK, maybe not. There is still too much racing left in this Chase to make any kind of bold predictions, regardless of what the record books may indicate, regardless of who the leader is at the moment and what he's done to get there. Dover can mash up cars like they're in a blender. Talladega is the bingo hopper of stock-car racing fate. Phoenix is an unknown given its recent resurfacing and reconfiguration. Four more 1.5-mile intermediate tracks remain out there. The chances are heavy that a few more drivers will run out of gas.

So yes, eight hard weeks do remain. Stewart has a lot to overcome, both in terms of competition on the track and odds off it, before he can think about supplanting Johnson and celebrating on that stage in metro Miami. But then again, Stewart has bucked historical precedence before. Only once has the leader of the 26-race regular season gone on to win the Chase -- Stewart, in 2005. Leave it to the driver they call Smoke to be the exception. Perhaps he can be once again.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.