The Frontstretch: 2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Tony Stewart by Jeff Wolfe -- Thursday December 13, 2012

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2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Tony Stewart

Jeff Wolfe · Thursday December 13, 2012


2012 Ride: No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet
2012 Primary Sponsors: Office Depot, Mobil 1
2012 Owners: Tony Stewart & Gene Haas
2012 Crew Chief: Steve Addington

Stats: 36 Starts, 3 Wins, 12 Top 5s, 16 Top 10s, 1 Pole, 2 DNFs, 9th in Points.
Best Finish: 1st – three times (Las Vegas, Fontana, Daytona – July).
Average Finish: 13.6.

2012 Team Ranking: 1st out of 2. Stewart is the part-owner of his team, along with Gene Haas, while Ryan Newman drove their other full-time entry, the No. 39. Stewart made the Chase for the Championship in an effort to defend his 2011 title, but Newman was left out of the postseason altogether as he finished 14th in the final standings. Stewart-Haas Racing also ran Danica Patrick in the No. 10 car for 10 races, but she did not manage a top-10 finish. Patrick, who’s been toiling in the Nationwide Series the last three years is scheduled to compete full-time in Sprint Cup competition in 2013.

High Point: Fontana in March. When Stewart picked up the win at California Speedway, it was already his second of the season in just five races. Stewart, who even as the defending champion started the year with a new crew chief in Steve Addington, looked like he had made the right move. Along with winning five of the last 10 races to end the 2011 season, the Fontana victory gave Stewart seven wins in the last 15 Sprint Cup events. It was an early statement by the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet that he was ready to defend his title.

Tony Stewart

Low Point: Any hopes of a second straight championship went out the window when Stewart, while leading the race, inadvertently started a multi-car crash on the final lap of the Talladega race in October. Stewart came into the race fifth points after the fourth race in the 10-race Chase for the Championship and knew he would need a victory at the restrictor plate track if he had any realistic chance to repeat as champion. But when he went low to block Michael Waltrip on the final lap, he was a half-second late, starting the so-called Big One right at the front of the pack. The accident resulted in a 22nd-place finish for Stewart and dropped him to seventh in the point standings, leaving him almost no chance to catch leader and eventual champion Brad Keselowski. Stewart was never higher than seventh in the points again the rest of the season. The finish at Talladega completed a five-race fade to start the Chase for Stewart. He entered the Chase third in points due to his three victories. But his first five finishes in the Chase were a fourth, sixth, seventh, 20th and then the 22nd. And Stewart, who won five races in the Chase in 2011, did not win a Chase race in 2012.

Summary: Stewart made big news even as the 2011 season ended when he let championship crew chief Darian Grubb go and hired Steve Addington to replace him. The move looked like a good one early on when Stewart won two of the first five races, picking up right where he left off last November. But Stewart’s only other win for the rest of the season would come in the July race at Daytona. The second half of the season, including a summer stretch where Smoke usually heats up was a different story for the No. 14 team. In the last 18 races, Stewart had just seven top-10 finishes, and only one of them was better than fifth.

It doesn’t appear Stewart will go changing crew chiefs this year. He did, after all, give Grubb three years to prove himself, and once the decision was made to release Grubb, the team found magic to win the 2011 title. Addington proved he was capable of taking cars that often qualified poor, or were poor in practice and made them competitive as Stewart had 20 starts of 20th or worse for the 2012 season. The true test for the Stewart-Addington combination may well come in 2013. With the sixth-generation race car’s debut, the ability for the driver and crew chief to communicate will be at a premium as they each try to learn the nuances of the new Chevrolet.

Off-Track News: Stewart is the owner of Eldora Speedway in Ohio, a one-half mile dirt track that was awarded a NASCAR Camping World truck race in July of the 2013 season. It will be the first dirt race in Truck Series history and the first sanctioned one for a major NASCAR series since 1970.

2013 Outlook: Stewart should again be one of the favorites to contend for the title. Since he has an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, including access to engine and chassis information from the Hendrick engineers, that should help him get off to a good start. Stewart may have some sponsorship issues, though as Office Depot pulled out as a primary sponsor after the 2012 season. Bass Pro Shops stepped in to fill 18 of those races, and Mobil 1 will stay on to sponsor 11. That leaves Stewart with nine races to fill, counting the 36 regular season events and the two All-Star ones — at Daytona and Charlotte. The Stewart-Haas team will also be fielding a third full-time car for Danica Patrick in 2013. While Patrick is an unproven rookie, that may help the team gather more information during the season — every little bit helps with the new car and many questions it is likely to bring.

2011 Grade: A.
2012 Grade: B. Stewart couldn’t find his late-season magic that he had in 2011, but this season was certainly no disaster. He had three victories and was one of the 12 drivers to qualify for the Chase for the Championship. Even though he will turn 42 in May, the Columbus, Ind., native still appears to have the fire that has made him a three-time champion. If he doesn’t make the Chase in 2013 and doesn’t contend for the title again, it will be a major disappointment. Expect the man known as “Smoke” to come out strong. Remember, one of the races he hasn’t won is the Daytona 500, the sport’s crown jewel, which will kick off the season on Feb. 24.

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