Tony Stewart hopes two solid weekends can keep him in Chase contention as he continues to look for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win of the season and his position in the standings comes under growing threat.
Entering this weekend's race at Atlanta, the penultimate event before the playoff series field is set, the two-time Cup champion ranks 10th in the standings, 21 points ahead of Penske's Brad Keselowski, who is on a charge that has seen him move up from outside the top 20 to almost breaking inside the top 10 in points in a matter of four weeks.
Stewart, who won a year ago at Atlanta, arrives after an unusually lacklustre performance at Bristol, where he finished 28th and three laps down on winner Keselowski. However Stewart maintained his position in the standings thanks to an equally poor result for Richard Childress Racing's Clint Bowyer, another driver threatening his top 10 placing.
Owner/driver Stewart says that despite many believing he desperately needs a victory, his current position just calls for two trouble-free races at Atlanta and Richmond in order to ensure he makes the Chase. He admits however, that kind of performance will not take him very far in the Chase once he is in it.
"We're still 21 points to the good of where we need to be so we are in the spot we need to be in, we just need to maintain it," said Stewart. "So, obviously if we had a win this weekend we wouldn't have to worry about it next week so it would be a luxury to win the race this week but it's not a necessity.
"It could work against us too. It may not work out after Richmond but at least going into this weekend we are where we need to be. Everybody keeps saying last ditch and we have to make something happen... we don't have to make anything happen, we're in the spot we're supposed to be in and need to be in to be in the Chase so we just have to not have a disaster happen. We just need two solid weeks."
Stewart admits his season has not lived up to his own expectations and says his car has proved to be hard to balance at times, making it a hit or miss at certain tracks. This year he has two runner-up finishes but his results have been inconsistent for most of the season. He has the least amount of top-five finishes among the likely Chase contenders.
"It just shows how sensitive I think these cars are," he said. "The window of getting them right is very, very small verses what we've had in the past but that's what makes it also fun. When you have a good day and you do get it in that window that's what makes it gratifying knowing you were able to accomplish that goal. It's the hard part of trying to figure out what you're missing when you're off.
"That's the frustrating part – when you go week in and week out and you can't figure out what that missing piece of the equation is. You see guys that have not been good in the past but all of the sudden are good, they've found something so it's proof that it's there it's just our job to go out and find it and capitalize on it."
Earlier this year Bobby Hutchens was released as the vice president of competition at Stewart Haas Racing but Stewart does not believe that caused his slump. However he reckons his team is in need of a director of competition as Matt Borland, who replaced Hutchens on an interim basis, is now filling in multiple roles.
"We need a competition director right now, for sure, that definitely would be a big factor in helping get things going hopefully but I think Matt Borland has done an awesome job of juggling multiple roles," Stewart said. "He's not only had to be the interim competition director but he's still the special projects manager and all the things he's had to do.
"He's working three jobs right now so I think all things considering he's done an awesome job of filling in. Knowing that we've struggled this year, I think he's done a great job of trying to be there and help us get through this time."
Ryan Newman, Stewart's teammate, is set to lock his place in this year's Chase this weekend at Atlanta, as he currently ranks seventh in the standings. Stewart believes for the time being, his outfit's championship potential hinges on Newman, although he does not place himself out of the title equation just yet.
"I think Ryan has been more consistent and definitely would have a better opportunity than what we have with our 14 car right now," Stewart said. "The great thing about this sport is it's a week to week situation. You don't know that we might find something this week that may all of a sudden fix everything and that's the hard part about it.
"Ryan has definitely been consistent. I know they have been very cautious the last five or six weeks making sure they are protecting themselves. You know they feel very confident they can have a good championship run. There's always a lot of variables that aren't in your control."
Stewart is currently in a 30-race winless streak in the Cup series, having last won at Fontana last fall, though this is not his longest win drought.