Welcome back to the Chase, Tony Stewart.
Well not quite, but his inclusion is inevitable after the three-time Sprint Cup champion won for the first time in three years on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway. Stewart still must get inside the top 30 in the championship standings to become fully eligible but scoring max points in California went a long way toward making that goal a reality.
With his triumph, Stewart is now up to 32nd and nine points away from officially appearing on the Chase Grid for the first time since 2013. But his victory has several repercussions on the rest of the field too.
Much like Kyle Busch last season, the unlikely Stewart Chase berth now means there is one less spot for a driver to qualify for the playoffs based on championship points. That’s already putting pressure on several big names with just 10 races remaining in the regular season.
Kasey Kahne is currently 16th and occupies the final provisional spot on the Chase Grid, but that will soon shift to 15th once Stewart cracks the top 30. But let’s assume for a moment that Stewart is already on the Grid and you’ll notice that a dogfight is brewing for those final few spots.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. +28
13. Ryan Newman +17
14. Austin Dillon +15
15. Jamie McMurray +13
16. Kasey Kahne -13
17. Ryan Blaney -16
18. AJ Allmendinger -20
19. Trevor Bayne -24
20. Kyle Larson -30
Given his relatively competitive performance in the first half of the season, Allmendinger enjoyed the luxury of racing this weekend without needing to win on a road course to make the Chase. Unfortunately for him, Stewart’s victory may mean that he is once again needing to rely on Watkins Glen to make the playoffs, something he did back in 2014.
Further complicating matters is that the schedule features several wild card events over the next two months, but none greater than the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night at Daytona. It’s not completely out of possibility that another driver outside of the top 20 could win and further shake up the future forecast.
Aric Almirola won this event in 2014 while David Ragan has two restrictor plate victories to his credit. Earnhardt, meanwhile, is looking to become the first driver since Tony Stewart 10 years ago to win back-to-back Firecracker 400s and doing so would represent the first win of his season.
For any winless driver to break through on Saturday would circumvent a great deal of stress during the summer months, especially given which tracks loom on the horizon.
Remaining on the regular season schedule are stops at Bristol, Darlington and Richmond – tracks with high attrition rates that could considerably shake up the standings.
So unlike last season, when the Field of 16 was largely decided before the playoff cutoff, there remains a great deal of congestion near the middle of the pack.
But none of this was ever Stewart’s problem. He was in win-only mode from the moment he returned from an off-season back injury. Points racing was never on his agenda beyond getting to 30th. Now he’s won and can sit back and watch the pressure that was supposed to mount on him hover on those fighting near the bubble.
True to form, Stewart wasn’t going to retire without making it tough on as many rivals as possible.