2006 Ride: No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet
2006 Owner: Joe Gibbs
2006 Crew Chief: Greg Zipadelli
Stats: 36 races, 5 wins, 15 top fives, 19 top 10s, 11th in points
High Point: Ironically, the high point of the season for Stewart came late in the year, when he won three races during the playoffs after getting knocked out of Chase contention during the last race of the regular season. When the playoffs began, Smoke was the first driver on the outside looking in, pigeonholed in 11th place but with a sizable lead over 12th on back. That meant he now had nothing to lose by going out and running for the win each week; known as an aggressive wheelman, that was exactly the words Stewart had always wanted to hear.
The new, go-for-broke two-time champ saw his strategy pay off with his third win of the year at Kansas, where the team gambled on fuel mileage and stole the victory while coasting to the finish line. That win was then backed up three races later with back-to-back trips to victory lane at Atlanta and Texas, giving Stewart the most wins of any driver during the playoffs in 2006 (three).
Low Point: While Stewart was successful during playoff races, the effort was ultimately futile, as the driver faced the overwhelming low point of missing the Chase for the Championship by a mere 16 points the year after capturing the Nextel Cup. The key moment in the season for Stewart came at Charlotte at the Coca-Cola 600. Solidly in the top 10 in the standings at that point in the year, Smoke endured a vicious wreck in the Busch Series race that weekend; he was cleared to race, but was pretty beaten up getting into his Nextel Cup car. Unfortunately, the worst possible scenario happened that Sunday; Stewart wrecked hard for a second consecutive night, sending him to the hospital and leaving him with a 42nd-place finish.
Tests later showed Smoke had a fractured scapula, an injury that forced driving duties to be handed to Ricky Rudd the following week at Dover after the race’s first caution. Rudd finished a disappointing 25th, and while Stewart rebounded the next weekend with a third-place finish at Pocono, the nagging injury at the very least caused the No. 20 team to lose its rhythm from that point on. In the next two months leading up to the Chase, Stewart failed to finish in the top 20 on six occasions to drop from third in points to a vulnerable driver on the Chase bubble, barely hanging onto the top 10. That put the pressure on the team at Richmond, and they didn’t step up to the plate; an 18th-place finish surprisingly knocked Stewart out of the Chase and into land of the also-rans.
Summary: Overall 2006 wasn’t a terrible year for the two-time champ, despite the fact missing the Chase loomed large in his mind. Stewart was still as competitive as ever, winning the $75,000 season-ending bonus for leading the most laps during the season. But he didn’t put together the big summer push like he has in years past, a nagging failure which really came back to bite him come Chase participation time.
On the bright side, Stewart did end the season on a relatively high note, and managed to extend his streak of eight seasons with multiple trips to victory lane, winning five times. Of course, no year would be complete without the barrage of Stewart temper tantrums, either, and we did see a couple glimpses of “angry Tony” throughout the year; among the notable Stewart run-ins of 2006 included squabbles with Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. Those squabbles continued to prove that the kinder, gentler Stewart championed in recent years appears to still be a continual work in progress.
2007 Outlook: No major personnel changes are in the cards for Stewart and the No. 20 team in 2007. Tony is coming off his worst season-ending points finish of his career, which could spell trouble for the competition early on in the season as he tries to put that nightmare behind him. Plus, you have to figure Smoke’s ego is dented a bit when his rookie teammate made the Chase and he didn’t; there could be no better fuel for Tony’s competitive fire. Although the Car of Tomorrow may throw some major challenges the No. 20 team’s way, look for Smoke and Zippy to stay ahead of the game. They always do.
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