NASCAR driver Tony Stewart isn't an underdog anymore

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:52 PM ET

JOLIET, ILL. - Tony Stewart had so few expectations last season going into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship that he told the media it would be wise not to place any bets on the No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet.

Well, we all know how that worked out.

Stewart went on to win the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway and four others including the final at Homestead Miami Speedway in the 10-event playoff to beat Carl Edwards in a tie-breaker — most wins — to claim his third Sprint Cup championship.

So nobody is going to buy a Stewart as the underdog this time around, and he isn’t even going to try to sell it that way.

“A year ago, I didn’t even think that we belonged in the Chase,” he said Thursday. “To go from that mindset to winning five races and winning the championship, I mean, no matter how you feel sitting here today, you know it’s possible.”

Stewart claims he was being realistic last season about his chances and it was just that everything unexpectedly came together for the team over the 10-race stretch.

Knowing anything can happen — as it did for him and the No. 14 team in 2011 — leaves Stewart feeling good about his chances this time around.

“I guess if anything, that’s why we feel a little bit better going into this Chase,” he said. “I’m not sure that we’re exactly where we need to be, but we’ll go into this weekend with a positive attitude, and we’ll do the best we can.

“We’ll take it one week at a time and we’ll take what it gives us.”

So confident is Stewart that he likes his chances of repeating his incredible feat of winning five of these next 10 races.

“I hope that we can get five of them again, and I hope the ones that we don’t win, we can get a little bit better finishes than last year,” he said.

He admits, however, this year does not have the same vibe he felt last season and it is something that does concern him and new crew chief Steve Addington.

“It has a different feel to it than what we had last year,” Stewart said. “It’s definitely not going to be a cakewalk. You have 11 other guys in this Chase who have done an awesome job, especially the guys that had to race their way into the Chase, like Kasey (Kahne) and Jeff (Gordon).

“Everybody is on their game right now. Every year I say it and every year I’m proven right — this is just the most competitive Chase field we’ve seen.”

Unlike last season when Stewart came to Chicagoland with no wins and was the bottom seed, he starts this Chase with three wins — and the nine bonus points that with them — on the leaderboard.

“I think the biggest thing is nine points,” he said. “I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but considering the way the season ended up for us last year and tying with Carl for the points lead and winning the championship on a tiebreaker, having these three wins going into the Chase versus last year, there’s so much value to it, versus being tied for ninth or 10th like we were last year.

“We’re tied for second this year. So we’ve already got a jump start on where we were a year ago. I think if anything, everybody is real conscious of the fact that one spot — that one point — can make such a big difference.”

Stewart also thinks last year’s experience is going to make all 12 Chase drivers fight hard for every position, knowing a single point can win the championship.

“I think you’re going to see guys fighting hard to lead a lap; you’re going to see guys fighting really hard to lead the most laps and to get everything they can get,” he said. “The dynamic of it is just a little different than what it was last year.”

Another thing different this this year is it would appear five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is back in form this time around.

Last year the No. 48 team had lost its sense of invincibility, but Stewart said Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are back to being the big dogs once again.

“Jimmie Johnson knows how to do it; he knows the mindset,” Stewart said. “There’s a difference between Jimmie and somebody like Denny (Hamlin) or Martin (Truex Jr.) who has not won a championship yet in this series.

“You think you know how to win it, but until you have one won, you don’t understand the pressure that’s involved and everything that goes along with it. Jimmie knows that.”

When ask if he had a prediction for the Chase, Stewart said he would leave that to the Las Vegas bookies.

“I never even thought we deserved to be in it (last year), let alone have a shot to win it so I’m definitely not going to be an oddsmaker in Vegas, as far as going out there and helping them handicap all this.”

PENSKE CLOSING IN ON HISTORY

Roger Penske has a chance this season to do something no other auto racing team owner has ever done: Win both a NASCAR Sprint Cup and an IZOD IndyCar championship in the same season.

Penske Racing will have Will Power in the No. 12 Chevrolet in Saturday’s IndyCar finale in the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and Brad Keselowski in the No. 2 Dodge Sunday in the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Il.

Power has a 17-point lead over Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 28 Chevrolet and has to be considered the favourite to win his first IndyCar crown.

Keselowski enters the Chicagoland race tied for second place in the first of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

Penske will be in Fontana for the Saturday night race in the hopes of watching Power land the team its first IndyCar championship since Sam Hornish Jr. did it back in 2006.

He will fly to Chicago overnight to be on the pit box as Keselowski attempts to start the process of bringing the Penske group its first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.


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