By NASCAR Wire Service Saturday, September 15 2012 00:00
Only from Tony Stewart could a less-than-cheery forecast about his postseason chances be interpreted as a warning shot for his rivals. Then again, this song has been played before.
In 2011, Stewart entered the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs winless and distressed by his No. 14 Chevrolet's sagging performance. Shortly after verbalizing his displeasure in blunt terms, Stewart reeled off five wins in 10 races to wear the Sprint Cup crown for a third time.
If orchestrating a repeat title is in the cards, it will begin in Sunday's GEICO 400 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Chicagoland Speedway, site of round one in the 10-race Chase playoffs that will determine a series champion. The 1.5-mile track is where Stewart kick-started last year's historic Chase run with a fuel-conservation victory.
Stewart has enjoyed considerably more success this season with three wins, but a lack of consistency during a mid-summer slump left him as the last driver to claim a playoff spot through the top 10 in points.
"I'm a little bit pessimistic again," Stewart said Wednesday as part of Chase Media Day in Chicago. "I don't feel like we're as good as we need to be right now, but I feel like that we're in a better position than we were last year, but I still don't feel like we're exactly where we need to be."
Although the defending race and series champ isn't happy with the slight decline, Stewart insists his gripes aren't a reverse psychology ploy. He also says not to count on this Chase resembling any other 10-race home stretch since the playoff format was adopted in 2004.
"I honestly think it's so hard to predict," Stewart said. "None of us would've predicted that was going to happen last year. You look at all eight seasons that they've had the Chase and no two have repeated themselves. There's no blueprint; there's been no pattern. It's literally a one-week-at-a-time scenario."
Stewart's title defense is made tougher by the competitive nature of the Chase field, which includes three other former Cup champions. Of the 12 title-eligible drivers, 10 of them have won championships in NASCAR's top three national series.
"Somebody says this every year, but I feel like this is one of the most competitive Chases ever," said Matt Kenseth, the last pre-Chase Cup champion in 2003. ". . . There's really not anybody you can count out. Usually starting the Chase, you can pick out two or three guys and think they're probably not going to have a shot at the championship, but I don't feel like that this year.
"I feel like you've got 12 really quality, championship-caliber teams involved. I really think today, it's anybody's game."
SCORE TO SETTLE FOR SADLER, STENHOUSE
There's only one way the NASCAR Nationwide Series title fight could be closer after 25 races, and that's if Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were tied.
As it stands, Sadler leads the defending series champion by just one point entering Saturday's Dollar General 300 Powered by Coca-Cola (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at Chicagoland Speedway. With eight races left on the series schedule, the two drivers have separated themselves from the pack, all while their own personal rivalry intensifies.
Sadler won the season's first race at the Illinois track in July, when he bypassed pole-starter Stenhouse, who had led 135 of the 201 laps.
"We're bringing back the same car so we know our Ford will be stout," said Stenhouse. "These final eight races, we have to bring our 'A' game."
A wreck last weekend at Richmond International Raceway involving Sam Hornish Jr. has helped the top two to break away from the pack. Hornish, who had forged a tie for second place in the Nationwide standings after the series' race at Montreal, has since dropped to fourth place, 50 points off Sadler's pace.
Top rookie Austin Dillon -- on the heels of four straight top-10 finishes -- sits third in the Nationwide standings, 30 points behind Sadler, his Richard Childress Racing teammate.
PETERS POISED FOR IOWA SWEEP
Timothy Peters has performed well on all types of circuits in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this year, but he doesn't disguise his affinity for short-track racing.
Peters, the points leader with eight races left this year, returns to Iowa Speedway for Saturday night's American Ethanol 200 Presented by Hy-Vee (8:30 p.m. ET, SPEED) in search of a season sweep at the .875-mile track.
Dating back to last season, his No. 17 Red Horse Racing team had been 20 races without visiting Victory Lane until Peters surged to a breakthrough win at Iowa in July.
"The bar is set pretty high after our performance last time," Peters said. "When we go back, it seems like we need a win or nothing else."
Since then, Peters has added a dominant triumph at Bristol but his points lead is a scant six points over James Buescher and just nine points ahead of top rookie Ty Dillon, who scored his first win in the series' most recent race, at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Ron Hornaday Jr., who has won at least one race in each of the last eight years, will be returning to the site of his best finish in a so-far winless 2012. The four-time champion and 51-time winner in the series finished second at Iowa in July after Peters pulled away on the final restart.
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