Most of the drivers that were asked on Friday at Watkins Glen didn’t want to say it out of respect for what Tony Stewart means to NASCAR, but the leg injury that has the three-time Sprint Cup champion on the sidelines for the remainder of the season could come to the benefit of some of the fringe Chase contenders.
The absence of Stewart creates a major void in the race to the Chase.
For one, it eliminates a driver from contention who entered the weekend 11th in the standings and who occupied one of the two wild card playoff spots. That’s a title that is now open to any number of drivers who performs the best over the next five weekends.
That list includes Stewart’s teammate Ryan Newman, defending champion Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch — quite the a-list of NASCAR superstars.
Busch, like many of his peers, agreed that Stewart’s health was his primary concern when the news broke but admitted that the injury did put him (Busch) in a better position to make the field of 12 once the points reset after Richmond. Even still, Busch says he can’t afford to focus on that too much as he believes his playoff chances will further improve mostly by focusing on his own efforts.
“We just need to focus on our 78 car,” Busch said. “We just need to worry about what we have to do to get our points and to not have bad things happen in the race. It would be the same as Tony spinning and wrecking on Lap 1 in a sense on Sunday. He’s just not going to get any good points.
“We now have that forecast to know that that’s going to happen before the race even starts. We just need to stick to our game plan now and just stay focused on the 78 car.”
Truex believes that there are too many weeks remaining in the ‘regular season’ to be focused on the standings, as anything could happen. Truex enters the weekend 14th in the hunt and is the biggest beneficiary of the points shakeup as it stands.
Mentally eliminating Stewart places Truex in control of that second wild card entering the weekend. Another win or series of good finishes could lock him in.
“We’ve got a lot of races to go,” Truex said. “There are a lot of guys around us that can still win a race on any given weekend and we just need to worry about our own deal and focus on trying to get another win and be consistent enough to hopefully get back in the top-10.”
For those currently already inside the top-10, the very real possibility of a Chase without Stewart has implications on how those final 10 races could play out too.
It was just two years ago that Stewart just barely made the Chase but went on a run of five wins in 10 weeks to win the title over Carl Edwards. The lack of Stewart in the playoff picture or on the track means a lot more possibilities for someone else to find victory lane at the tracks that Stewart typically contends at, says four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
“There is no doubt that Tony plays a huge influence in the Chase and in the championship,” Gordon said. “We saw him squeak into the Chase just a couple years ago and win the championship. You never count them out… I looked to him to being one of the biggest threats for the position that we’re in.”
So with just 15 races remaining in the 2013 season, one injury may have completely changed the face of the season championship.