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NASCAR mailbag: Can Tony Stewart return and qualify for the Chase?

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Which drivers can rally and overcome a slow start to the season, should NASCAR adjust the size of the playoff field and Tony Stewart's injury progress are the topics covered in the weekly mailbag.

Jeff Curry/Getty Images

Although NASCAR may have had an off week due to the Easter holiday, that didn't prevent the inbox from filling with questions from what transpired during the opening five races of the season as well as what lays ahead.

As always if you have a question you can submit it via Twitter or by emailing jordanmbianchi@gmail.com.

Reading your rankings of guys who should make the Chase and what struck me was that maybe just about every "name" driver of note will end up in the Chase. Sixteen spots is too much, especially since NASCAR reduced the field size. It feels like basketball or hockey where making the playoffs is easy and not really an achievement. Any chance NASCAR would lower the number from 16 back to 12 or even 10?

--Trent

Sorry to disappoint you, but NASCAR isn't going to decrease the number of guys who qualify for the Chase. Sixteen is a number that neatly works with how the Chase format sets up where four drivers are eliminated every three races culminating in a four-driver winner-take-all finale. And although there is merit in having its Chase more exclusive, NASCAR is in line with other major sports leagues in how many participants gain playoff eligibility.

Consider, 36 drivers attempted all 36 Sprint Cup races last season (a figure that includes Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth, who would have competed in every event had it not been for injury or suspension) which means 44 percent made the Chase. That's less than the NBA or NHL where 53 percent of teams qualify and slightly more than MLB (33 percent) and the NFL (37.5).

What's also been proven is that even with the expanded Chase field, drivers representing the biggest teams still aren't assured of claiming a position. In the two years since the knockout format was incorporated, Stewart-Haas Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing all had multiple drivers miss out and Kasey Kahne of Hendrick Motorsports failed last season. It may be easier to get, but it's still difficult.

One thing I've noticed is that there is always a driver who starts the season badly, then rallies to make the Chase. But seeing your list I can't figure out who that driver is this year? No one seems capable of breaking out and winning.

--Dave

There is no denying that a byproduct of this Chase format is the leniency it provides drivers to recover if they start a season slowly. For example, last year Jeff Gordon was 22nd in points after five races, Kurt Busch was 28th and Kyle Busch was unranked and yet all still rebounded to lock up a Chase berth with a regular season race to spare.

As for who could replicate what Gordon and the Busches did last season, the pickings appear slim. In order for someone to rally they need to be capable of finishing near the front with regularity to amass points, and/or winning a race to gain automatic entry.

Matt Kenseth would seem to fit the criteria, except sitting 15th in points he's provisionally in the Chase and not facing the same predicament as Gordon and the Busches were. Neither Kahne nor Kyle Larson have shown much in the way of consistency, but if either popped off a victory it wouldn't be all that surprising. And you have to assume Ryan Newman's bad luck will subside and he'll eventually start racking up decent results to position himself for a wild card berth.

Any word on when Tony Stewart may return? And I know Kyle Busch did it last year, but there's no chance Tony can miss a bunch of races and still make the Chase?

--Ben

Even if Stewart hadn't suffered a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra, he still would be hard-pressed to qualify for the playoffs simply because his performance has dipped considerably since the start of the 2013 season. Maybe he would've conjured up some of the magic Gordon used to nearly win the championship in his final season before retirement? More likely, he resembles the driver who's recorded just eight top-five finishes in his last 90 starts.

As for when Stewart will resume racing, that is not known. He's stated adamantly numerous times since the injury that his comeback won't occur until he completely heals, and with him only beginning rehabilitation early this month, projecting an exact return date is pure speculation.

What we do know is that when Stewart was initially injured, SB Nation spoke with several experts in the medical industry and almost universally the consensus was the same: Stewart faces a grueling recovery process that is to be measured in months, not weeks. The best-case scenario offered was that he returns sometime in early June, while it's more realistic he doesn't come back until mid-to-late summer.