Tony Stewart’s magic number is 22. The season ends this weekend at Miami and all Stewart needs to win his first career points championship is to place in the top 22.
Mark Martin trails Stewart by 89 points and needs help. Assuming Martin will run in the top five and gain 165 points, Stewart must finish 30 or worse.
Martin does have some positives going for him. During a test session last month, he had the fastest car by a considerable margin. One of the testers last week was Stewart who didn’t come close to Martin’s times.
Based on history however, Stewart owns Miami.
"I'm looking forward to coming back here (Miami)," Stewart said. "This is a place we've run well at, so for us it's a confidence boost to know that the last race of the year is one we've run well at. We won here the first two years and last year we dominated before we had tire problems. We enjoy coming here but the obvious question is 'Why do we come here to test considering we've been so good here?' We just want to try to make sure we stay as good as we've been."
Stewart, who has maintained all season long while in pursuit of his first NASCAR Winston Cup Series title that he would always race to win. Now that a title is in within his grasp, his strategy may change at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"When we get here, we'll be points racing," said Stewart. "The last race of the year, you points race."
Stewart’s amazing career performance at Miami would make him an easy favorite to win the race but, by his own admission of points racing, his odds are 10-1. Martin, on the other hand, has everything to gain by winning at Miami. Based on his ultra-fast practice times, Martin is 8-1.
“Martin has so much to gain,” says Boulder Station’s Kelly Airgood who installed Martin as the favorite. “After being set back 25 penalty points two weeks ago, I thought Martin might pack it in, but he battled back strong at Phoenix. I look for Martin to finish better than Stewart in the actual race with the points race to be very close.”
Mandalay Bay’s Hugh Citron has a different angle that somewhat questions Stewart’s mental toughness.
“I can recall two big races this season where Stewart was in the spotlight and choked,” Citron said. “At Daytona, in the season opener, he finished last after having dominated the week before in the Bud Shootout. Then at the Brickyard he was the pole-sitter and had every underlying story surrounding him because he was from Indiana and barely finished in the top 20. Those were his two biggest races of the season and he didn’t perform well.”
The key component for Stewart might be focus. By admitting he’s racing for points, he’s already taken away his aggressiveness. It’s hard to imagine that he can keep himself in the reserved expressway drive-home mode like Kyle Petty (75-1) does every week. Stewart is not one to stay out of trouble.
Two years ago at Miami, Stewart’s teammate Bobby Labonte (14-1) was on his way to his first championship. They were battling for position with Stewart trying to get by. With total disregard for Labonte and what he had at stake, Stewart bumped him out of the way nearly sending Labonte into the wall. It was a preview to what many call typical Stewart.
Another aspect of the championship chase is how the other drivers will race with each of the championship contenders. On one side, you have the well respected composed veteran Martin who everyone is backing.
On the other side, you have a temperamental young driver in Stewart, who has many enemies on the track. In the last month, Martin’s Roush Racing teammates allow him to pass to get lap leader points. It’s possible some of the other drivers might race tougher against Stewart than Martin.
Some of the possible contenders having run-ins with Stewart include Kevin Harvick (25-1), Mike Skinner (125-1), Ricky Rudd (18-1), Jeff Gordon (8-1), and of course Robby Gordon (45-1). However, Robby Gordon has had a run-in with almost every driver in all forms of motor sports.
The Roush Racing team of Martin, Jeff Burton (18-1), Matt Kenseth (10-1), and Kurt Busch (10-1) will all be tough. Kenseth is off his series-leading fifth win of the season. Not since 1976 has the Winston Cup win leader finished as far back in the points standings (eighth) as Kenseth.
David Pearson finished 1976 in ninth place with a series leading 10 wins. Busch, who moved up two spots to third place last week with a great performance at Phoenix, is the hottest driver on tour.
The Evernham crew was dominant at Miami last season. Bill Elliott (12-1) won from the pole while then-teammate Casey Atwood (125-1) started second and finished third. This year, history could repeat itself, except Jeremy Mayfield (25-1) is now Elliott’s teammate. Miami’s setup requirements are comparable to Pocono and the Brickyard. Both are flat and places Elliott dominated with back-to-back wins.
If Mayfield could get the support Atwood got last year in this race, he’ll be a nice long shot to watch. Mayfield has two Pocono wins over his career and finished second at Miami two seasons ago.
The Championship prediction is Stewart by 18 points, finishing 18. Martin will place second and gain 180 points. If Stewart leads a lap, he would get 109 points.
PREDICTED TOP 5 AT MIAMI
1) #9 Bill Elliott 12-1
2) #6 Mark Martin 8-1
3) #97 Kurt Busch 10-1
4) #19 Jeremy Mayfield 25-1
5) #99 Jeff Burton 18-1
18) #20 Tony Stewart 10-1