CHICAGO—Tony Stewart has been called lightning in a bottle innumerable times throughout his racing career. First in his sprint car and midget car career in USAC, then his foray into Indy cars and, in particular, the last 13 seasons in NASCAR.
So, given the way Stewart kicked off last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup with a win at Chicagoland Speedway, and then went on to win four more races in the 10-race Chase en route to his third career Cup championship, it's natural to wonder whether lightning can strike again for the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet in this year's Chase opener Sunday in the Geico 400.
Just listening to Stewart during his press conference Friday afternoon at the racetrack, you can almost feel as if, yes indeed, lightning is ready to strike again.
"It’s definitely exciting, obviously," Stewart said. "It hasn’t been that long ago, 365 days ago was where it started. It seems like yesterday almost, it’s nice to be back. Our first practice went really well, so just take it a day at a time still like we did last year and see if we can get some results."
Stewart was 12th fastest in the first practice session Friday morning and 14th in the final afternoon practice. He and the rest of the field will qualify for Sunday's race shortly after Noon on Saturday.
Stewart has the potential to become only the fifth driver in NASCAR history to win four or more Cup championships in his career if he can successfully defend last year's crown. With prior Cup titles in 2002, 2005 and last season, if Stewart wins the championship this season, he would join an exclusive class that contains Jeff Gordon (four titles), Jimmie Johnson (five), Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt (each with seven).
But while Johnson won all five of his crowns within the Chase format (which began in 2004), and Gordon won all four of his titles long before the Chase ever came into existence, Stewart has won a championship outside the Chase and two others within the 10-race playoff.
Still, Stewart said there's no magic formula to win a Cup title these days.
"It is such a guess," he said. "There isn’t really a set way of doing anything anymore. I think probably the one thing that everybody is probably more focused on after last year is the fact that every single point is going to be a big deal." Stewart and Carl Edwards, who missed this year's Chase, actually tied for last season's Cup championship, but the title nod went to Stewart for having five wins, as opposed to just one by Edwards.
"Whether it’s leading a lap to get a point, you know if you might stay out on a caution just to lead a lap and if you are not running well…if you get in a crash you can get that thing fixed and you are going to fight for every spot you can get just to get that one extra point. We all know what the value of it is, but as far as the approach each week, you do the same thing the last 10 weeks that you do the first 26 weeks that gets you here."
The key for Stewart to catch lightning again is pretty simple and straight-forward: get off to a good start not only this Sunday but also in the second race of the Chase next weekend at New Hampshire.
Not coincidentally, Stewart won at both Chicago and New Hampshire last season, which gave him a big boost that he rode all the way to the championship.
"I think it definitely gets you off to a good start (to win the first two races)," Stewart said. "I think it helps for sure. It sets the tone, but last year we won here, we went to Loudon and won, and then we went to Dover and we ran 24th.
"It’s not something that fixes things that are wrong, but it’s always nice to get off to a good start. If you crash in this race and run 40th, you feel like you are climbing Mt. Everest after that. You know very well that everybody could have a bad race, but if you start off with a bad race here it really makes you feel like it’s going to be a long road to recover from.
"If you have a good race you are just one step closer to your goal. I wouldn’t say it gives you that invincible feeling that just because you win here you are going to win the championship, but it’s nice to leave here with just a little bit of momentum knowing that you have nine more of them to go. It’s nice leaving here with some momentum on your side."
Stewart is rarely at a loss for words, but even he remains mesmerized somewhat at what he did and how he did it.
"I mean, it was a cool run," Stewart said. "The hard part though is that was a year ago. I’ve got to worry about what I’ve got to do to do it again this year. I can’t spend that much time thinking about what we did last year.
"It was an awesome run obviously, but…I would have lost my house and everything because I would have bet totally against what happened. I didn’t have the confidence that was even feasible for our team. It just shows you can sit here today and feel confident and it not work or you can be feeling like you’re going to run dead last and win five races you just don’t know.
"I don’t know how you could predict it. How do you honestly and accurately predict that? It’s been won so many different ways. There is no formula, no right or wrong answer. It all depends on what the 11 other guys that you are racing with do each week. It strictly is dictated by that.
"There isn’t a set formula. There is no blueprint, there is no certain way of doing it. It’s just who can put together the 10 best weeks and there is no set way of doing it. There is no logical answer, I guess. There is no answer. Anybody that plays in the World Series of Poker can’t tell you how many hands you have to win to win the tournament. You’ve got to play it one week at a time."
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes were obtained first-hand by the writer.