Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday July 15, 2007
With a little luck, we can help it out.
We can make this whole damn thing work out.
With a little love, we can lay it down.
Can't you feel the town exploding?
There is no end to what we can do together.
If you're asked to describe Tony Stewart's year in just one word, chances are "lucky" won't be the one that makes the final cut. Lots of other adjectives take precedence instead: temperamental, unpredictable, controversial, underachieving. But after going through a roller coaster first half of a season in which not three, not four, but five races Stewart could have won slipped right through his grasp - with nothing but unforeseen circumstances to blame - it's clear that luck's been the last thing to come to his aid.
After going winless through the first half of this season - the first time Stewart's done so since his rookie year in 1999 - he came to Chicagoland focused on snapping a twenty-race victory drought. To do so, he had to engage in a battle royale with Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson - a microcosm of a year which has seen the two biggest Chevy heavyweights engage their drivers in combat on the level of Frazier and Ali. With just 65 laps to go, the two were engrossed in perhaps the only battle worth mentioning on a listless day of racing - while Stewart was ahead at the time, it was clear Johnson still had some tricks up his sleeve, along with the confidence earned from running down Stewart and passing him with three laps left to win Atlanta in March. Cooling his heels in second as the race entered its final stages, it appeared the stage was set for another fascinating finish.
Of course, that's when the right rear tire of the No. 48 became very uncool. In an instant, Johnson found himself a victim of the outside wall - punching Stewart’s ticket to the Winners' Circle as a result.
“Man, we were so even at the end," said Johnson as he looked back on the day. "I think it would have come down to traffic, or if we would have had another pit stop – who got in the front then would have probably won the race.”
But Johnson never got the chance, as his wrecked race car breathed new life into a team that's seen every possible obstacle pop up in their way this season.
"These are the days that you like to have," Stewart's crew chief Greg Zipadelli explained after the team's first win of â€˜07. "You just go out and work on the car and have fun. It kind of was a little bit, I don’t want to say relaxing, but it wasn’t the first 18 races we’ve had with something going wrong. Everything worked for us today and everybody kept their heads high most of the season, and that’s what I think finally broke the ice for us."
It's an iceberg that should have thawed long ago. While Hendrick's got the stats to back up their swagger - 10 of 19 wins this season to go along with Jeff Gordon's 295-point cushion in the point standings - they've watched their main challenger in Joe Gibbs Racing fly slyly under the radar. It's Gibbs' own Denny Hamlin - not any of the Hendrick foursome - who leads all drivers in laps led in Car of Tomorrow races this season, with Stewart leading the series in laps led overall. Clearly, had the right breaks fallen their way, we could be talking about an entirely different team dominating the landscape of the series.
Instead, Gibbs has been busy dominating the headlines for everything that's gone wrong. First, it was Denny Hamlin's pit crew pulling a Three Stooges routine on pit road each week - a series of mistakes that snowballed so quickly, Hamlin complained and the team got rearranged by the end of May. Then, Stewart's off-track persona caused a cascading effect of PR nightmares - a bad dream that hit its peak at Daytona last Saturday once Smoke ran into Hamlin on the racetrack while the two ran first and second. Both cars wrecked and went to the garage, a perfect opportunity for Stewart to point fingers at everyone but himself.
That final snafu left Joe Gibbs cutting his vacation short to have a half-hour meeting with both his marquis drivers on Saturday. Apparently, whatever he said worked wonders.
"It was a good meeting," claimed Stewart. "Joe Gibbs’ strength is that he knows how to motivate people and how to keep a team atmosphere and attitude. The good thing is Denny (Hamlin) and I talked and we had a great conversation. As far as teammates, we’re only a year and a half into our relationship and out of a half-hour meeting yesterday, it’s probably going to make us stronger than ever and today was a good example of that. We worked really well together and will continue to do that.”
The motivation from that conversation quickly shined through on the track. Now, with Stewart breaking through in the win column, he joins teammate Denny Hamlin in combining to win two of the last three events. It's clear that after a season of shooting themselves in the foot each week, this team is more than focused in putting past incidents behind them.
“I’m really happy," said Hamlin in summing up the team's weekend. "I know (the No. 20 team was) kind of stressed out like we were to finally get a win. It seems like they always bounce back. Whenever there’s adversity, they always seem to pull together. It’s good for them.”
"From my standpoint, when I’ve got a car every week that I know at least I’ll have the capability of running up front with, you know that you can’t have bad luck forever," added Stewart.
It's a limit everyone at Hendrick is well aware of. Now winless since Jeff Gordon's Pocono miracle one month earlier, the team is staring at some scary stats: 21 of Stewart's 30 career wins have come after July 1st. And now, he's part of the team with the strongest amount of momentum, heading to a playoff race in which Top 10 finishes just won't cut the mustard.
“Tony’s been strong all year," said a concerned Jeff Gordon Sunday night. "They just haven’t gotten the wins. And now, he’s got the wins."
"I never doubted him a bit. I feel like no matter what, that guy is a threat for the championship whether they’ve won races or not. And those last ten (races) you know that team is going to step it up and by getting them a win, that’s just going to give them some momentum. Right now, we’re leading the points but we’ve got to be better, for sure.”
Giving a call to Lady Luck in the off week wouldn't hurt, either. She's going to need to know Hendrick's number come Chase time - because a little dose of it either way could make the difference between who's the top Chevy team come November.
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