For The Tribune

Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart is beginning the final leg of his NASCAR career with a chance to go out on top.

The Columbus resident is one of 16 drivers who qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a 10-race playoff to determine the top stockcar series champion. The playoff begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.

Stewart, 45, is retiring from NASCAR racing after this season, but the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing has a chance to cap his career with a fourth Cup championship. He previously won the NASCAR season series in 2002, 2005 and 2011 — the latter two in a playoff format.

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A fourth championship would tie Stewart with fellow Hoosier Jeff Gordon for the fourth-most season championships in NASCAR history. Besides Gordon, only Richard Petty (seven), Dale Earnhardt (seven) and Jimmie Johnson (six) have won more.

Here are some things to know about Stewart’s chances for another championship as he starts the Chase:

Finishing strong

Stewart missed the first eight races of the season because he injured his back in an all-terrain vehicle accident Jan. 31 in dunes near San Diego. He sustained a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra and had surgery Feb. 3. He returned to action April 24 with a 19th-place finish. He followed the next week with a sixth-place effort, but then had a string of five consecutive finishes of 12th or worse, four of which were 20th or worse.Since June, though, Stewart has performed like a championship contender. Consider that:

He scored the 49th NASCAR Cup series win of his career on June 26 in Sonoma, California.

He has finished seventh or better in six of the past 12 races.

His turnaround included a five-race stretch from July 9 to Aug. 7 where he finished fifth or better four times, and his worst performance was an 11th place.

A title possible

Stewart enters the first playoff race seeded in the bottom half of the 16-team field, and nine points behind the two co-leaders.However, he has learned that anything is possible in the Chase, even when it doesn’t appear success is likely.For example, Stewart qualified for the Chase in 2011, even though he didn’t think he had performed well enough to deserve the spot. What happened? Stewart won the Chicagoland race and it served as a springboard. He won four more races in the Chase en route to his third series championship.

What does Stewart recall about that race?

“The win at Chicagoland in 2011 basically made me look like an idiot. I had preached for weeks that we did not belong in the Chase, and up until the Chase started we didn’t. … All of a sudden, we show up and win Chicago. It was probably the only time I’ve ever won a Cup race and thought, ‘That was probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.’ … It was like going to see David Copperfield in Las Vegas. It was like, ‘poof,’ all of a sudden something we said couldn’t happen happened,” Stewart said in a team news release.

So, what lesson did Stewart learn from that?

“It doesn’t matter what I say or think right now. It’s a matter of what we do when we get to the racetrack,” he said.

And on the racetrack, Stewart said one of the keys to success in the Chase is to balance aggressiveness with smart driving.

“To win a championship, you have to be smart enough to know when and when not to push,” Stewart said.

Stewart likes Chicago

While Stewart lives in Columbus, the Chicagoland racetrack has been like a home away from home because he’s made himself perfectly comfortable there. Consider:His average finish in 15 races at Chicagoland Speedway is 10.4.He has three wins, eight top-5 finishes and 10 top-10 finishes at the 1½-mile oval track.

Stewart has led 434 laps at Chicagoland.

In addition to the track, Stewart said he loves the atmosphere of the race.

“The thing about the Chicago market is not just the people who come from downtown Chicago to see the race, but you are in a spot in the Midwest where there is so much pavement stock car racing, dirt stock racing, open-wheel dirt racing, open-wheel pavement racing. It is a hub for racers. Chicago feels like a home track because it’s close to my home in (Columbus) Indiana,” Stewart said.

How the Chase works

The NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup is a 10-race playoff used to determine the series champion.

It includes 16 drivers who qualified by performing better than the other drivers in the series, either by winning at least one race or finishing in the top 16 in points.

The Chase drivers compete against each other while also competing in the standard field of 40 cars.

The driver with the most points at the conclusion of the Chase is the champion.

The first race of the Chase is 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. The final race is Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The Chase uses an elimination format to pare the championship field.

Each of the 16 drivers who qualifies for the Chase grid starts with 2,000 points, plus three points for each win earned during the first 26 regular-season races. After the bonus points for wins are added, drivers are ranked in order of the reset points.

The first cut, from 16 to 12 drivers, occurs after the Oct. 2 race at Dover International Speedway. A win at any of the first three Chase races equals advancement into the next round. The rest of the field of 12 will be determined by order of points scored in the three races. Bonus points awarded for laps led. Each advancing driver is reset to 3,000 points.

The second cut, from 12 to 8, comes after the Oct. 23 race at Talladega Superspeedway. A win at any of the three races equals advancement into the next round. The rest of the field of eight will be determined by order of points scored in the three races. Bonus points awarded for laps led. Each advancing driver is reset to 4,000 points.

The final four drivers will be determined after the Nov. 13 race at Phoenix International Speedway.  A win at any of the three races equals advancement into the next round. The rest of the field of four will be determined by order of points scored in the three races. Bonus points awarded for laps led. Each advancing driver is reset to 5,000 points

.

What matters in the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway is the order of finish. No bonus points for laps led. The four finalists will start the race tied, and the highest finisher wins the championship.

–Source: nascar.com

The Chase field

Here is the field for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, with their starting points totals reflecting bonuses for regular-season wins:

1. Kyle Busch, 2012

2. Brad Keselowski, 2012

3. Denny Hamlin, 2009

4. Kevin Harvick, 2006

5. Carl Edwards, 2006

6. Martin Truex Jr., 2006

7. Matt Kenseth, 2006

8. Jimmie Johnson, 2006

9. Joey Logano, 2003

10. Kyle Larson, 2003

11. Tony Stewart, 2003

12. Kurt Busch, 2003

13. Chris Buescher, 2003

14. Chase Elliott, 2000

15. Austin Dillon, 2000

16. Jamie McMurray, 2000

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.