Even if he doesn’t take the checkered flag Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, Tony Stewart could have much to celebrate.
Under NASCAR rules, he’d be credited with the victory having started the race before he turns his No. 14 Chevrolet over to Ty Dillon (likely during the first caution). But NASCAR confirmed Tuesday night that a victory by a relief driver also would count toward making Stewart eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup if he can make the top 30 in points over the final 17 races of the regular season.
Stewart finished 19th at Richmond International Raceway after missing the first eight races with a fractured back. The three-time Sprint Cup champion will turn the car over to Dillon as a precautionary measure at Talladega, which is known for its vicious, multicar wrecks.
If he were to win over the next 17 races, Stewart still would need an impressive run to qualify for the playoffs with a victory. Based on past seasons, he likely would need to average a top-20 finish to gain enough points to reach the top 30 and become eligible.
Last season, Kyle Busch won the championship despite missing the first 11 races, winning four of his first nine races back and easily making the top 30 in points.
There’d been confusion over whether a relief win by Dillon would help make Stewart eligible to qualify for the Chase. When the playoff format was revamped in 2014, NASCAR officials had indicated that such a scenario wouldn’t qualify a driver despite the new rule tying Chase berths to regular-season wins.
Aric Almirola was credited with an Xfinity Series victory at The Milwaukee Mile in 2007 despite turning over the wheel to Denny Hamlin, who had arrived late at the race from a Sprint Cup practice in Sonoma, Calif.
Dillon told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Wednesday that he would qualify the No. 14 for the GEICO 500 and that he and Stewart would both drive it in practice.
Dillon also addressed the difference in cockpit preferences between him and Stewart, saying the this weekend’s car will be designed to his preferences.
“I actually ran his bucket, the carbon fiber frame of the seat, in every race this year and the same angle he usually runs in his seat,” Dillon said. “The pedals I’m sure will be a little bit further away than what he’s used to. We have adjustable seat belts in it, so when we’re getting in and out it makes it easier, we don’t have a set, standard.”