Everybody's Chase-ing Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, gets ready to hit the track...

Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, gets ready to hit the track during practice this week at Dover International Speedway. (Getty Images)

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:35 PM ET

TORONTO - Just three days before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship began at Chicagoland Speedway Tony Stewart was telling anyone who would listen that he should not be counted among the favourites to capture the big prize this season.

But as Stewart and the other 11 Chase contenders get ready to battle the Monster Mile at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, he and the No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet team are on top of the standings with two consecutive visits — at Chicagoland and New Hampshire — to Victory Lane.

So what gives?

Well if you listen to Stewart, he doesn’t have the answer to why he has gone from the 10th seed to the No. 1 seed in two weeks.

On Friday at Dover, he said the best explanation he had was that the team just got good all of a sudden.

“We’ve been talking about that for three straight weeks now,” Stewart said. “We weren’t good before Atlanta. We’ve been good for a four-week stretch now that’s been really good, and I don’t know why it’s turned around.”

There are some, including his good buddy Dale Earnhardt Jr., who figure Stewart has been good all along, and just unlucky that he hadn’t won this season before the Chase began.

“Tony Stewart’s been around and won (two) championships and he’s a threat to win any race he shows up to; and it seems momentum and good fortune and being able to hit on something at the right time sort of cycles in this sport,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t think you can ever count Tony Stewart out. If he hasn’t proved that in this Chase, I don’t know if he ever will.”

If you study statistics, the chances of the No. 14 team making it three in a row with a win on Sunday afternoon at Dover are pretty slim.

He has just a single Top 10 finish the past 14 races on the concrete oval and a woeful average finish of 18th in 25 career starts, with his last win coming 12 years ago in 2000.

It is a pattern that Stewart is concerned about.

“We just haven’t been very good (at Dover) the last couple of races,” he said. “We definitely need to pick our performances up.”

One thing is certain, however, and that is no one, including Stewart, is counting him out of the Chase now.

FRANCHITTI CONFIDENT

Dario Franchitti may have lost some momentum in the race to claim his fourth IZOD IndyCar championship but with just two races left on the 2011 schedule — both on ovals — the Scot is feeling confident.

He trails Will Power by a slim 11 points but goes into Sunday’s Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway with the knowledge that 15 of his IndyCar wins have come on ovals, compared to one for Power.

Sure there is pressure on him, but he is counting on his experience to deal with anything Power has to throw at him.

“Pressure is part of this job,” Franchitti said. “It’s been part of this job I think since I sat in a go-kart when I was 10 years old, so I know what I have to do.

“I put the pressure on myself.”

And Franchitti said he is focused on winning, not just beating Power, and he thinks that is important.

“You’re not racing one or two guys; you’re racing the whole field, especially on the one-and-half-mile track,” he said. “So you learn to almost ignore these things and just focus on doing the job and putting the championship out of your mind. If you do a good job, you win the championship.

“We’ll do the same thing as we’ve done the last three or four years, which is ultimately go out there and do our best and see how it ends up.”

FINISH LINES

When Ricky Carmichael decided to switch from motorcycle racing to NASCAR, it was assumed the 31-year-old, 18-time American Motorcycle Association champion would be in the Sprint Cup Series in no time. But after almost three full seasons in the Camping World Truck Series, Carmichael’s career is at a standstill. Going into Saturday’s Kentucky 225 Carmichael is 18th in the truck series standings ... After two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. was charged with impaired driving in his native New Mexico earlier this week IndyCar bosses suspended him from his job in race control until the matter is dealt with in the U.S. justice system.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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