|Tony Stewart is 100/1 to win at Kansas.|
The bulk of Stewart’s success at Kansas occurred on a surface that no longer exists. In addition to a massive repaving project between its two races in 2012, the track was reconfigured to include progressive banking of 17 to 20 degrees. In the Sprint Cup races that he has entered at Kansas since the facelift, Stewart’s best outing is a fifth-place result earned in the fall of 2012. Rules packages have changed several times since then and the first of Kansas’ two races has gone from being a day race in mid-April to an event that begins in late afternoon and ends under cool, dark skies on Mother’s Day weekend.
But challenges are nothing new to Stewart. He’s won on every kind of surface and in just about every type of car he’s ever raced. Plus, he’s on a mission. Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) organization want Saturday night’s Go Bowling 400 to be the launching point to win races and earn a berth for the No. 14 Chevrolet in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Stewart enters the race knowing he’ll be driving the No. 14 for every practice, qualifying session and race for the remainder of the season with no doctor’s restrictions or relief drivers waiting to take over.
The team’s challenges this season have been well-documented. Stewart missed the first eight races after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain vehicle accident. He returned to the No. 14 April 24 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, where he finished 19th. Last weekend at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Stewart drove the first 52 laps on the restrictor-plate track before, under doctor’s orders, turning the driving duties over to Ty Dillon, who dodged three accidents on his way to a sixth-place finish – a season’s best for the No. 14.
NASCAR granted Stewart a medical waiver in April that made him eligible for the Chase and compete for the series championship. To make the Chase, Stewart will have to race his way in by winning at least once and ending NASCAR’s 26-race regular season in the top-30 in driver points. Right now, Matt Dibenedetto is in 30th place with 128 points. Stewart is 38th with 57 points. Last year, Kyle Busch was 179 points out of 30th place when he got back in the cockpit after missing the first 11 races of the 2015 season. Busch went on to win the championship.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism on the No. 14 team. The 24-year-old Dillon and the veteran Vickers battled at the front of the field in each of their races, putting the No. 14 in 21st place in the owner standings. Stewart attended every race except Daytona, often sitting on the pit box or spotter’s stand watching the action and offering advice on the team radio. Stewart, who says he feels better now than he did last year, was as fast as the leaders throughout the Richmond race, sometimes running three- and four-abreast on the short oval despite such a long layoff from racing. He climbed out of the car at Richmond as fresh as he climbed in to start the race.
Under the guidance of first-year crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, the No. 14 team expects to improve its communication, grow each week and contend for victories. The No. 14 team’s goal at the beginning of the 2016 season focused on giving Stewart a final year to remember in his last Sprint Cup season before turning the driving duties over to Clint Bowyer at the Daytona 500 in 2017. Despite the late start to Stewart climbing behind the wheel, those goals haven’t changed.
The first step toward accomplishing all they want to accomplish begins with 400-miles of racing Saturday night in Kansas City.
Tony Stewart, Driver of the Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How are you feeling going to Kansas?
“I feel really good. What I learned after the race at Richmond is that my back was really messed up before the (January) accident when I broke it. I think the surgeons fixed that. I actually feel better now than I did this time last year. I felt really good after Richmond. We could have lined everyone up and raced again and I would have been fine. I’m ready to get back in full-time. I have a great crew and car and think we can show everyone that this weekend.”
What were your thoughts about the Talladega race?
“After watching Talladega, you can understand why the doctors wanted me to get out at the first caution. They definitely were right. It was an exciting race. The sixth-place finish was a great job by Ty Dillon. He impresses me more and more each day. I can’t thank him, Brian Vickers and (crew chief) Mike (Bugarewicz) enough. They have done an amazing job juggling three drivers this season.”
What was it like last week to turn your car over to Ty Dillon midway through the race?
“It sucks, to be honest. I know why we (had) to do it, but it sucks. It still sucks that you have to do it, but if I hadn’t broke my back at the end of January, we wouldn’t have been in that situation. Good news is it was the last time we have to do it and I am back in at Kansas. I really appreciate Ty (Dillon). He was been a rock star through this whole thing and especially (at Talladega.) He did all the heavy lifting and I just got in to ride around for 50 laps and turn it over to him.”
Chassis No. 14-754
This car debuted in March 2013 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Tony Stewart qualified ninth and finished a solid 11th. Its second start came in April 2013 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, where it qualified 13th and struggled with its handling before finishing 21st. Its last start of 2013 came in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, where it started 13th and finished 14th in the non-points event. Chassis No. 14-754 sat idle until 2014 when, under the direction of crew chief Chad Johnston, it was completely rebuilt. It came out of the box strong in its fourth career start in April at Texas, winning the pole and leading three times for 74 laps before finishing 10th. Chassis No. 14-754 made a second All-Star Race appearance at Charlotte in 2014. It had a quiet night, starting 15th and finishing 12th. The car didn’t turn a wheel until March 2015 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, where it qualified 20th and finished 14th. Its second start of the season came in June at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway where it started 28th and finished 21st. It returned to Pocono in August and showed strength all weekend, qualifying fifth and finishing ninth. It’s next appearance came in October 2015, when Stewart drove it to a 26th place finish at Charlotte. Its first start of the 2016 season came at Atlanta Motor Speedway with Ty Dillon behind the wheel as he substituted for an injured Stewart. Dillon started 18th and dropped a lap behind the leaders on lap 78 as the race ran green for the first 210 of 325 laps. He rallied later in the race to finish 17th.