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Tony Stewart plans patient approach to begin NASCAR Chase playoffs

Stewart knows that to advance past Round 1 he doesn’t need to win, he just needs to race smart.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a few years since Tony Stewart last competed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as injury and poor performance have kept the three-time NASCAR champion out of the playoffs since 2012.

And a lot has changed in the Chase in the years since Stewart last earned a playoff spot. There were no eliminations then, spread across multiple rounds. Only 12 drivers were championship-eligible, compared to the 16 in this year's field. And there was no winner-take-all finale among four finalists.

These are the variances Stewart, who's already announced this would be his final season as a full-time NASCAR competitor, will now have to adapt to when the 2016 Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Nonetheless the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing is back in the playoffs after a three-year absence thanks to a June victory at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, which snapped an 84-race winless streak. Along the way he's enjoying what could be a storybook conclusion to an already Hall of Fame worthy career.

"It's meant more than I thought it would," Stewart said Thursday at Chase Media Day in the Southside of Chicago. "I mean, I was ready at the end of the year last year to retire. Coming back, we really did it for our fans. We wanted our fans to see us run the last year.

"But it's been fun to race with these guys one last year."

While Stewart doesn't have familiarity dealing with the Chase elimination format as a driver, he has experienced the intricacies as car owner. Kevin Harvick drove an SHR car to the championship in 2014, the first year of the revised structure, and a runner-up finish last season.

Another SHR driver, Kurt Busch, has also earned a playoff berth each of the past two seasons. He was a Round 1 elimination two years ago, and got knocked out in the third round in 2015.

"The last two years, we got to see firsthand how this format works," Stewart said. "I think after each race, I was able to go back and analyze what his day was like and how his road to get to [the championship round] these last two years has played out. We pretty much got a good understanding of what we have to do."

Stewart's approach entering the first round, comprised of three races, is fairly straightforward. Because 75 percent of the 16-driver field will transfer, the plan is to not beat oneself via mistakes that create an insurmountable deficit, one that would make winning a race the only means to make it to Round 2.

Although the opposite mentality of Harvick, who wants to focus on winning and setting a tone early, Stewart's focus is to be smart and finish as well as possible. If he achieves that, advancement is likely.

"You're not going to win the championship in this first segment, but you can sure take yourself out of an opportunity to win it," Stewart said. "It's, don't make mistakes. Don't make mistakes. Be solid.

"But to Kevin's point, you have to be on your game right now. You have to be fast right now to win this championship. If you go out and you have a solid weekend at Chicago, have a good race where you're up front, that sets a lot of the tone and momentum for the rest of the Chase."

And part of racing smart includes not engaging in aggressive driving and paybacks, something Stewart's been involved with the past two weeks. He deliberately spun rookie Brian Scott in the Labor Day weekend Southern 500 after incidental contact between them, and had multiple run-ins with Ryan Newman last week at Richmond.

The Newman incident culminated with Stewart throwing an aggressive block that caused him and Newman both to crash. Afterward, Newman blasted Stewart saying he was "bipolar" and had anger management issues. Newman even went as far to reference a 2014 sprint car accident where Stewart struck and killed another driver who had been walking on the track. A grand jury found insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Stewart.

Stewart and Newman have spoken since Richmond, but Stewart said Thursday he understands Newman was frustrated with not making the Chase and believes those comments reflect that. NASCAR will speak with both drivers prior to practice Friday at Chicagoland to ensure any potential feud is squelched.

"When you're locked into the Chase and you're where you need to be in points, it's a little easier to let the other stuff be a distraction," Stewart said. "But right now, we have to do the same thing that we've done every year that we've been racing for a championship, and that's get focused on what we have to do to win it.

"There's times that guys are going to lean on you, and you're going to have to look the other way. It's what you have to do to win this thing."