Tony Stewart's quest to win a championship in his final full NASCAR season before retirement is in danger of coming to an early end, as he's now in a virtual must-win situation entering the first Chase for the Sprint Cup elimination race.
Stewart finished 23rd in Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the second event of three in Round 1 of NASCAR's playoffs. The three-time Sprint Cup Series champion fell 11 points behind Kyle Larson for the final transfer position going into next weekend's race at Dover International Speedway.
Although that deficit isn't insurmountable, with Jamie McMurray and Austin Dillon between himself and Larson in the standings, it's unlikely Stewart can finish high enough at Dover to move ahead of all three and avoid elimination. Therefore, Stewart's best bet to progress to the quarterfinal round is to win, which would guarantee his advancement as a win automatically qualifies a driver for the subsequent bracket.
Stewart's recent performance suggests a win may be out of reach. His best result over the past six races is 16th with an average finish of 26.3 over that span. Only rookie Chris Buescher is ranked lower in points than Stewart among the 16 Chase drivers.
If there is a reason for optimism it's that Stewart's teammate, Kevin Harvick, won Sunday's race and had one of the quickest cars in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway. And with his spot in the playoffs secure, Harvick says Stewart-Haas Racing, which Stewart co-owns, will focus on helping its namesake remain in the postseason.
"He can go to any racetrack and perform. He can go to any racetrack and win. He's Tony Stewart. I wouldn't bet against him," Harvick said. "I don't know what his circumstances and scenario are going into Dover, but we'll do everything we can to help him get to the point where he needs to be to try to move on."