KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Sept. 21, 2011) – A week ago while on a press junket in Chicago to promote the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, Tony Stewart proclaimed he’d be a “bumbling idiot” if he won this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. After all, the driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) hadn’t won a race in 2011 and squeaked his way into the Chase field with only three top-fives and 11 top-10s during the 26-race regular season.
By Stewart’s standards, it had been a miserable season. The two-time Sprint Cup champion (2002 and 2005) had his lowest totals of top-fives, top-10s and laps led prior to the final 10 races of the season than during any of his 12 previous years in Sprint Cup.
Then round No. 1 of the Chase took place Monday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., and when the checkered flag dropped, Stewart had his 40th career Sprint Cup win, his series-best third at Chicagoland and his first of the season. The victory ended a 32-race winless streak and vaulted Stewart from ninth in points to second, just seven markers behind series leader Kevin Harvick.
Now Stewart rolls into New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon for round No. 2 of the Chase with a bounce in his step and many wondering if the driver nicknamed “Smoke” was just blowing smoke when he downplayed his Chase chances.
For New Englanders, this might sound familiar. After all, it was the 2004 Boston Red Sox who were described as “idiots” by first baseman and cult hero Kevin Millar as he worked to keep his teammates loose during their postseason run to the World Series.
Down three games to none to the hated New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series, Millar told anyone who would listen as he warmed up inside Fenway Park for Game 4, “Don’t let us win tonight. This is a big game. They’ve got to win, because if we win, we’ve got Petie (Pedro Martinez) coming back today and then (Curt) Schilling will pitch Game 6 and then you can take that fraud stuff and put it to bed. Don’t let the Sox win this game.”
Millar’s words became prophetic as the Red Sox rallied in 12 innings to win Game 4, rallied again to win Game 5, controlled Game 6 and then dominated Game 7 to cap the biggest comeback in Major League Baseball playoff history.
Now another self-described “idiot” is at it again in New England. Stewart – the “idiot” who waited to win a race until the Chase began and when asked who the Chase favorites were prior to Chicagoland did not include himself – is now heading to another one of his best tracks.
New Hampshire is home to two of Stewart’s Sprint Cups wins (July 2000 and July 2005), as well as a NASCAR Nationwide Series win (2008) and an IZOD IndyCar Series victory (1998). And when he’s not winning in Sprint Cup at the 1.058-mile oval, he’s at least knocking on the door, as he also has a pole, nine top-threes, 13-top-fives, 15 top-10s and has led a total of 1,178 laps – second only to Jeff Gordon’s total of 1,226 laps led at New Hampshire, but accomplished in eight fewer starts than Gordon.
Need some more statistics? In the last 13 Sprint Cup races at New Hampshire, Stewart has…
· The best driver rating (114.0)
· The most fastest-laps run (381)
· The most laps led (847 laps or 21.9 percent)
… and is…
· The fastest driver early in a run, with an average speed of 125.419 mph
· The fastest driver on restarts, with an average speed of 121.102 mph
· The fastest driver in traffic, with an average speed of 123.864 mph
… and in the series’ last visit to New Hampshire in July, Stewart qualified second to his teammate, Ryan Newman, and then finished second to him in the race, giving SHR a 1-2 start and finish in the same race, something that hadn’t been done since Hendrick Motorsports started 1-2 and finished 1-2 in the 1989 Daytona 500. Making the moment even more memorable, however, was that SHR’s performance was the first time a team started 1-2 and finished 1-2 with the same drivers in the same order since DePaolo Engineering did it on April 7, 1957 at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. There, Fireball Roberts won from the pole, while teammate Paul Goldsmith started second and finished second. (In Hendrick’s instance, Darrell Waltrip won, but started second. Ken Schrader started from the pole and finished second.)
Bolstered by all those numbers and his team’s performance at New Hampshire just two months ago, Stewart is ready to adopt another memorable line of Millar’s as he “Cowboys Up” for his playoff run.