Welcome to From the Marbles' 2014 season previews. Here's how we think the Chase will shake out in this first year of 16 drivers and eliminations. Will we be right? Unlikely, but it's fun to think about our soothsaying possibilities until the green flag waves for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23.
Driver: Tony Stewart
2013 Finish: 29th
2013 Highlight: At Dover, a two-tire stop gave Stewart track position and he ran down Juan Pablo Montoya in the waning laps for the win. Had Stewart been in a position to make the Chase, that could have proved to be a vital win. Following his last race of the season at Pocono, he was 11th in the points standings, and at the time, the second driver in the Chase via the Wild Card.
2013 Lowlight: Yes, Stewart's season was cut short by the broken right leg he suffered in a sprint car race, but we'll shy away from that here. It's too obvious. Instead, we'll point to the struggles of the No. 14 car at intermediate tracks. After a seventh place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 when Stewart and then-crew chief Steve Addington battled an ill-handling car, things started trending upwards in the small sample size that ensued.
But before then, Stewart's intermediate track finishes were 11th (Las Vegas), 22nd (Fontana), 21st (Texas), 21st (Kansas) and 15th (Darlington). Hardly Stewartian.
Why is Stewart here? At Thursday's media day, Stewart classified his leg as "65 percent," so the leg will continue to heal as the season goes on. But a healing Stewart is still one of the best drivers in the garage. Stewart's struggles were likely a part of Stewart-Haas Racing being in catch-up mode at the beginning of the season. The team says it's in a much better position in 2014. If that corresponds with Stewart's performance, watch out.
How could Stewart not be here? As much as Stewart says that he's good to go, there will always be some questions, somewhere, about his performance. And those will grow if he starts the season struggling. There's also the matter of a third crew chief in four years, as Chad Johnston is now atop Stewart's pit box. Will it take some time for the duo to work smoothly together? And we must mention that Stewart has had a tendency to wait until the summer for his first win of the season. The chances are small, but with the new Chase format, waiting too long for the first win of the year could be costly (just ask Brad Keselowski).
Best Winter Olympic Event: Bobsled would be a good event for Stewart, however, we're not sure he'd be medically cleared to be a pusher of the sled and be able to hop in and drive. So we'll have to go with luge. No pushing with your feet needed.
Worst Winter Olympic Event: Given the leg, we'll say the moguls. Stewart will scratch out of that one.
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