The Frontstretch: 2011 NASCAR Driver Review: Tony Stewart by Garrett Horton -- Friday December 2, 2011

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2011 NASCAR Driver Review: Tony Stewart

Garrett Horton · Friday December 2, 2011

 

Tony Stewart

2011 Ride: No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
2011 Primary Sponsor: Office Depot / Mobil One
2011 Owner: Tony Stewart / Gene Haas
2011 Crew Chief: Darian Grubb

Stats: 36 Races, 5 Wins, 9 Top 5s, 19 Top 10s, 1 DNF, 1 Pole, 1st in Points.

Best Finish: 1st – Five Times (Chicagoland, New Hampshire – September, Martinsville – October, Texas – November, Homestead).
Average Finish: 12.0.

2011 Team Ranking: 1st of 2. Obviously, since Stewart was at the top of the points at season’s end, the 2011 champ was also the highest-ranking driver within the Stewart-Haas stable. His only teammate, Ryan Newman, had a strong year as well, qualifying for the Chase for the second time in three years at SHR. He finished tenth in the final point standings, scoring a victory at the first New Hampshire race in July. Newman’s win, along with Stewart’s five gave the organization six victories on the year, tied with Richard Childress Racing for most by a team.

High Point: The entire Chase was a high point for Smoke, posting a record five victories in the final ten-race stretch, but his Chase run obviously reached its climax when the checkered flag flew at Homestead. Stewart had just won his third Sprint Cup title, and did so in a storybook fashion. Knowing the only way to win the championship for sure was to go out and win the race, Stewart did just that, overcoming several slow pit stops and an some early front end damage to his grill while the man he was chasing, Carl Edwards, led the most laps and finished second. It was one of the greatest race rallies in recent memory and the closest points finish ever, but it also marked one of the greatest season turnarounds in NASCAR history.

Low Point: After finishing ninth at Michigan in August, a frustrated Stewart made some surprising comments about how his team didn’t even belong in the Chase because of how poorly they had been running. Just six days later at Bristol, he backed up that statement by posting the slowest speed in time trials. Things didn’t get better the next night, as he was off the pace for the entire running of the Irwin Tools Night Race. He finished three laps behind the leaders in 28th, and was barely clinging on to the final Chase spot via points.

Summary: If there was ever a tale of two seasons, Stewart’s 2011 campaign definitely fit the profile. He started the year off strong, leading the point standings after three races, all of which he could have won were it not for some bad luck. He then went on a 15-race stretch where he failed to score a top-5 finish – the longest drought of his career – and fell outside the top-10 in points for several races during the summer. His Michigan comments must have lit a fire a within the organization, because as we all witnessed, no one was better than Stewart in the last quarter of the year en route to his third Cup championship, and first as an owner.

Off-Track News: One week after winning his third Sprint Cup, Stewart was honored by the Indianapolis Colts right before halftime during their game against the Carolina Panthers. The game, which was played in Indianapolis, is located just about 50 miles from Stewart’s hometown in Columbus, Indiana. Unfortunately for the Colts, Stewart’s presence did not provide the team any good luck as they remain the only winless team in the NFL.

2012 Outlook: From an owner standpoint, Stewart has expanded his organization to a three-car team, with Danica Patrick scheduled to run the number 10 Godaddy.com Chevrolet in select events. The surprising news is that Darian Grubb is out as Stewart’s crew chief, replaced by Steve Addington in a three-year deal signed just after the 2011 season concluded. Even before having a championship on his resume, Grubb had been considered to be one of the top crew chiefs in the garage, picking up 11 wins with Stewart in three seasons while filling in admirably as Chad Knaus’ sub in 2006, winning the Daytona 500 with Jimmie Johnson. It is hard to imagine Stewart having similar success in the Chase if Grubb isn’t calling the shots. While Addington has guided both Kyle and Kurt Busch to many wins in the last several years, history shows he hasn’t had much success in the Chase. Whether that is more driver than crew chief remains up for debate, but a Stewart-Addington pairing should help us find out: Stewart tends to heat up as the year goes on.

2010 Frontstretch.com Grade: C+.
2011 Grade: A. Some may find that to be a rather nice grade considering his performance in the first 26 races, but to win five out of the ten Chase races, including the finale at Homestead, there is no driver out there that would not want to have Stewart’s season.

Contact Garrett Horton

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