Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth confident about qualifying for Chase for the Sprint Cup

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Although neither has yet to win in 2014, Stewart and Kenseth aren’t worried about missing NASCAR’s playoffs.

Both say there is no need to panic; plenty of time remains to win somewhere over the next 10 weeks. The two former champions are confident that when the green flag drops mid-September on the Chase for the Sprint Cup, they will be among the 16 participants.

Neither Tony Stewart nor Matt Kenseth is wrong.

"I don’t think there is ever a point where especially with this format that you get panicked. Our track record shows that we can get it. It’s just a matter of when is it going to happen." -Tony Stewart

A lot can happen between now and the beginning of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway. Wild card races remain at Daytona, Watkins Glen and, to a lesser degree, the pair of short track races at Bristol and Richmond. And never discount fuel-mileage and strategy settling things at Michigan or Pocono.

"We luckily have been able to win at least one race a season my entire Cup career," Stewart said last month. "I don't think there is ever a point where especially with this format that you get panicked. Because you don't have to be stellar in the points you just have to get a win. Our track record shows that we can get it. It's just a matter of when is it going to happen."

At one junction this season it appeared there would be more than 16 regular-season winners as nine drivers registered a victory in the opening 11 weeks. Since then, however, that belief has diminished with Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards all revisiting Victory Lane.

It's increasingly likely that despite Kenseth, Stewart and other high-profile names having yet won, the remaining balance of the Chase field will be filled by points and not victories.

Although it may seem Hendrick Motorsports may never lose an oval track race (it had won five straight races before Carl Edwards won on the Sonoma road course last Sunday), Kenseth and Stewart know from experience how quickly a team's fortunes can change. An organization can evolve from world-beaters into also-rans, seemingly overnight.

No one knows this better than Stewart, who in 2011 limped into the playoffs winless and cast aside any chance of procuring a third championship. Yet despite his dour expectations, Stewart proceeded to win at Chicagoland and then four of the next nine races to grab the title from Carl Edwards via a tiebreaker.

"I think you get six or eight weeks before Richmond then you start panicking if you don't have that win," Stewart said. "I think it's still too early to panic at least for us."

Both Stewart and Kenseth have had chances this season to essentially cement their Chase status. Stewart was running strongly at Pocono and Sonoma before incurring an infraction for speeding on pit road. At Michigan a potential top-three finish went by the wayside when he ran into Kyle Larson on a restart, necessitating an unscheduled stop for repairs.

Kenseth has had strong cars in numerous races this season only for various issues to arise. Sitting fourth in points he's well positioned to qualify for the Chase barring a rash of first-time winners in the next 10 weeks.

The focus for Kenseth isn't solely the Chase; it's finding the level of performance that propelled him to seven victories and a runner-up finish in the championship one year ago.

"I think the biggest sense of urgency probably is that we just know as an organization we need to be running better," Kenseth said. "We're not running as good as we did last year as a group. We're not leading as many laps, sitting on as many poles, winning as many races. As a group we're not doing near as much of that or running up front as much as we were last year.

"In this new format you really need at least a win and be up in the top-30 (in points) to really feel confident about being in the Chase. Anything can happen with different winners, so you're never sure. But if we could win every week, we would. So just to have a sense of urgency about it, it doesn't really do any good."

Even as the Chase clock continues to countdown, the pair of former champions aren't alone in downplaying the pressure of needing a win soon.

Regardless of NASCAR's edict that winning was now the end-all, be-all to getting into the Chase and then competing for the championship, consistency and accruing points would still maintain some importance -- especially during the regular season.

It's a position Clint Bowyer has maintained since NASCAR's mid-January announcement. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver may not have a win in 2014, but like Kenseth and Stewart, Bowyer is confident about his placement (14th in points) entering Saturday night's race at Kentucky Speedway.

"Common sense tells you to look at the past history and the math shows you that points are always going to prevail," Bowyer said Friday at Kentucky. "He who has the most points is always going to win the championship."

Still, Bowyer desperately wants to win -- something he hasn't done since October 2012.

"You've always been able to race your way into the Chase and I think it still will today, but right now we need a win," Bowyer said. "We're at the point in our program with our 5-hour Energy Toyota that we're desperately in need of a win and we need to throw it all out there and go for it and try to get ourselves a win somewhere."

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