Tony Stewart has been stealing the headlines this season, and rightly so. No one anticipated this team becoming so good, so fast.
They even had driver history playing against them (Stewart has been one who starts slow, but gets better as the summer starts).
Currently, Stewart leads the standings by 175 points over Jeff Gordon, and 212 points over Jimmie Johnson.
Unless he hits a very tough string of bad luck, he will likely end the “regular season” as the points leader (though that may not guarantee him the top seed, depending on wins with him and the other drivers).
However, as far as the Chase is concerned, might he and Stewart-Haas Racing be peaking too soon?
When you look at the stats of the Chase, only one driver who led standings through the first 26 races (again, not counting the times when seeding has placed a driver with more wins at the front), only one has managed to win the Chase.
Now, that one driver was Tony Stewart (2005). But, as he normally had done through his career, his season never got going until the summer.
He didn’t completely dominate the early part of the season (as Jeff Gordon did in 2004 and 2007, as Matt Kenseth during the summer of 2006, and as Kyle Busch did in 2008).
As Stewart is stealing all the attention, Rick Hendrick’s group seems to be plugging away and consistently contending for wins.
Mark Martin grabbed his fourth of the season, while Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson ran well through the night and finished second and ninth (Johnson dropped back after contact with Kurt Busch).
Throw Mark Martin (and his four wins) into the picture, and it appears that Hendrick’s boys are all geared up for a title run…and could so with any of those drivers. Remember, Martin’s only back 11th in the standings due some horrible luck, especially early in the year.
While it’s impossible to predict how the Chase will go, especially at this point in the season, I’d very wary to say that Stewart will grab this year’s title.
Not when Johnson and Gordon are lingering in the background, or even with Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards in the mix, as each has contended for titles in the past.
Plus, there’s always a chance that someone will surprise and contend for a title, even if he wasn’t at the top of standings through the first 26 races (see Carl Edwards in 2005, Denny Hamlin in 2006, and Clint Bowyer in 2007).
There’s a always the chance that a driver like Kasey Kahne or Juan Pablo Montoya (among others) could mount a charge.
Plus, Stewart has one more thing that could work against him. The Haas team hasn’t experienced a Chase before.
Now, you might be thinking that’s irrelevant, because Stewart and has, and Darian Grubb has (when he was with Jimmie Johnson as a car chief).
However, this team reminds me of Kyle Busch’s team from one year ago. They came out blazing hot, and then got on a winning roll during the summer months (as Stewart has, winning two races since June started).
But no one on that No. 18 team has experienced what the Chase is like, and the team collapsed once it started.
Stewart’s team is in the same boat this year. And, if trends are anything to go by, Chase experience can be very important to making a true run at a title.
Of course, as I said, it’s impossible to tell exactly who will do what come Loudon in September. But, based on the trends, I would think that Stewart might not be the title favorite we might be led to believe.
He has dominated the season to date, but his lead will vanish once the Chase starts (and that’s if he has enough wins to be seeded first).
Can that team handle the pressure of a title fight, having not been involved with one…ever? I really don’t know…and I have some doubts.