For years, the conventional wisdom has held that Tony Stewart heats up when the weather does. This past summer was one of the hottest on record in much of the country, and yet Smoke stayed chillier than the last beer in the cooler.
What went wrong? Nobody knows, or at least nobody who's willing to go on the record. Stewart hasn't been awful, nailing down three top-fives and 11 top-10s, and he was very close to several wins early in the season. But for whatever reason, it simply hasn't clicked for the 14 team the way it has for his teammate Ryan Newman.
Still, he's in the Chase, and he's carrying a bit of momentum, having ended the regular season with a third-place finish at Atlanta and a seventh-place finish at Richmond. A two-time champion, he knows what to do in these situations, and he could vulture a championship in, for Stewart, the most unlikeliest way possible: quietly.
Smoke's best Chase track: Good news: it's Chicago! Stewart has an average finish of 9.5 at Chicago, one of only three tracks (with Indianapolis and Watkins Glen) where he's got a top-10 average. A great start in the first race of the Chase could make the rest of this ugly regular season a bad memory.
Smoke's worst Chase track: Talladega, which is not the bad news it might seem. Talladega's such a crapshoot right now that Stewart's average finish of 15.5 doesn't really matter. If you're in the right place at the right time, your average finish could be 43rd and you could be just fine.
Key question: Can everyone stay on the same page? Stewart and his crew have, at times, seemed to be running such different races this year that they may as well have been at different tracks. It makes for great in-race radio, but not for great finishes.
JB's prediction: 10th. Stewart can't seem to keep his hands on the mojo, and we're not talking about his erstwhile monkey. He's one bad run away from a black-cloud funk that could cost him two or three more races in recovery time.