The Sprint Cup chase is set, and Tony Stewart will start the chase at New Hampshire in second behind Mark Martin.
Stewart has not had much to crow about since his win at Watkins Glen in early August.
A string of four races since the Glen has seen Stewart’s average finish fall to 19.5, including a miserable 33rd at Bristol. Ryan Newman, the other half of Stewart-Haas racing, has finished ahead of his boss in each of those four races.
Speculation could be that by Newman finishing ahead of Stewart in each race, it gave Newman the cushion he needed to secure a chase spot.
Speculation could also be that Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb are experimenting with different chassis set-ups, hoping to gain an advantage going into the chase.
This theory might be the answer, but it covers only part of the final 10 races.
If Stewart’s 11th place finish at Atlanta was the result of some set-up experimenting, this would make perfect sense because four of the final 10 races are on a 1.5 mile track. But why experiment? Why change something that is working?
Leading up to Atlanta, Stewart won at Charlotte and finished 4th at Chicagoland, both 1.5 mile tracks.
Experimenting with set-ups at Bristol and Richmond makes no sense either, especially since the only track less than 1.0 mile in the chase is Martinsville.
Maybe, just maybe Stewart has entered into a late season slump. The magic and momentum might be slipping away.
This would be the worst possible time for a slump. Entering New Hampshire Stewart’s 237 point cushion is gone and everyone below him, except for Martin, is now just a bad pit stop or an ill timed caution flag away from being ahead of him in the points.
If Grubb and Stewart have been playing with the chassis, and actually found a slight advantage on the mid range race tracks, it could be all Stewart needs to secure his first championship as an owner and third as a driver.
If Stewart is experiencing a slump and cannot turn things around, it could be the second year in a row the point’s leader watches his chances slip away.
Photo Credit: David Yeazell