One elephant in the Sprint Cup garage these days is not pudgy Tony Stewart himself, but instead the ill performance of his No. 14 race team. The Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet has been little better than scrap metal at the track the past several weeks, struggling to stay on the lead lap, much less score top 10s, top fives and wins. How bad have things gotten for last year’s Cinderella driver/owner story? With a 23rd-place finish Saturday night, Stewart has finished outside the top 15 in six straight races – the first such stretch in his 12-year Cup career. He and crew chief Darian Grubb have not publicly diagnosed any problems, but something certainly is awry with Stewart-Haas Racing’s flagship team.
The downward spiral began at Martinsville on March 29th. The No. 14 Chevy started fifth, but quickly began slipping back through the pack at a track it finished third and ninth at last year. A poor setup caused Stewart’s fall from the lead lap in the race, not a fluke pit road speeding penalty or crash. By that Monday afternoon’s end, he wound up 26th, two laps down, in a bit of a shocker. This came just one race after Bristol, where Stewart finished a season-best second after flexing his typical short-track muscle.
The following race at Phoenix brought similar results for the No. 14 team. Stewart started 11th, led 15 laps after winning the race off of pit road following the night’s second caution, then faded to 23rd. Back-to-back mid-20s finishes have not been uncommon early in a season in the past for Stewart, but the dramatic downturn in competitiveness for him, Grubb, and the No. 14 raised some eyebrows, especially since teammate Ryan Newman scored his first win in the Stewart-Haas No. 39 that same night.
The next race at Texas seemed a turning point. Stewart broke a 155-race pole drought by posting the fastest qualifying time in the Office Depot car. Stewart led 74 laps both early and late in the race, but triggered a massive pileup while racing with Jeff Gordon during a late restart and finished 32nd. Admitting after the race that he caused the crash, three straight finishes outside the top 20 hung over Stewart at that point.
Talladega Superspeedway seemed a good place for Stewart to break out of his mini-slump. Known as one of the better plate drivers, he hung in the very back for most of the day, before trying to edge up toward the front. But somehow, the two-time champ failed to capitalize on the numerous late-race crashes that eliminated contenders. He led one lap, but could only muster 16th. As the laps wound down, Stewart was absent in crunch time – not even close enough to the front to take himself out of contention while going for a winning pass.
Stewart did break his non-top 20 streak at Talladega, but consecutive 23rd-place finishes at Richmond (where he has run very well in the past) and at Darlington Saturday leave the No. 14 team 18th in the standings. One rare bright spot for Stewart in this otherwise cloudy season is that he is only 59 points behind the 12th-place driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. That’s little consolation, though, to a driver that was 29 points behind leader Gordon at this time last season.
At the 2009 spring Martinsville race, Stewart began his surge toward the top of the standings by finishing third. In 2010, his slippery slide down a mountain of inconsistency began in the same race, one that coincided with NASCAR’s allowing the return of the spoiler to the CoT. Quasi-teammate Jimmie Johnson has also seen his results fall off in this six-race span, but at least he still holds on to second in points while crew chief Chad Knaus has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the car in recent weeks. The secret to Stewart’s slump is likely more complex, as most drivers have not mentioned a major change in their cars’ performances (except at Talladega) with the spoiler compared to the wing it replaced.
Roush Fenway Racing has been through a similar slump since the inception of the CoT, with the exception of the 2008 season that saw Carl Edwards win eight races and three RFR cars make the Chase. Many changes within the organization have been made, but Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing regularly outrun the five Roush Fords. Earnhardt Jr. has also inexplicably been running poorly, but seems to be turning a corner with crew chief Lance McGrew, though they still have trouble finishing races. The disease that polluted the drivers and teams in these two examples seems to have spread to Stewart.
Bad luck or bad performance, both or neither, Stewart needs to turn up the heat and cannot wait until the hot summer months to do it. While he is only 59 points behind the Chase cutoff spot, he has to leapfrog six drivers to get there and none of those six are pushovers. From 17th to 12th in the points, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Earnhardt Jr. all have showed promise this year and sit where they are in the points not because of some bad performances, but also a good share of bad luck. In other words, Stewart will not simply be able to just hang on and cruise to a top 12 Chase berth, like he did last year.
The No. 14 Chevy has averaged a finish of 23.8 since Martinsville. For a driver with 37 wins, two Cup titles and an extremely competitive race team that gets motors and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, the performances are unacceptable. And now, for a team that suddenly is looking for backing for at least 14 of 2011’s races (now that Old Spice has announced its departure), it’s more important than ever to grind this slump to a halt. Considering this organization is possibly looking to expand to a three-team operation next year with a top driver and sponsor, these plans could be on ice if Stewart fails to make the Chase and secure the necessary funding for his own car. So if Stewart wants to break the monotony of Johnson’s Sprint Cup title reign and simultaneously tackle comeback kids Gordon and Kevin Harvick and the surging, surgically-repaired Denny Hamlin, Title Quest 2010 must begin now.
The clock is ticking.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.