NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Smoke Busting His Sophomore Slump, Heating Up at Just the Right Time

After a difficult start to his second season as owner/driver, the last month has been pretty good to Tony Stewart. Smoke, you see, as the old cliché goes starts slowly, then heats up with the summer months when the tracks get slick, slippery and treacherous.

This year, it seems, is no exception, and it’s not a moment too soon for the 12-year veteran of some 409 Cup races – who started the season in something of a fog. That slump was highlighted by an ugly six-race spell, beginning at Martinsville, that saw Stewart finish 26th, 23rd, 32nd, 16th, 23rd and 23rd. Not the form of a champion (or even a Chaser), that’s for sure, and certainly a far cry from how he dominated the points during last year’s spectacular regular season run. But a ninth-place finish at Dover in May started the righting of the ship for Stewart, and he followed that up with a 15th-place run at Charlotte, third at Pocono, fifth at Michigan, ninth on the 1.99-mile road course at Sonoma and, of course, second behind Jimmie Johnson in this past Sunday’s race at Loudon.

Looking back at the two-time Cup champion’s win record does more than anything to highlight his typically slow starts – with 33 of his 37 race victories coming after June 1st. And funnily enough, since that very same date this year, Stewart has scored 638 points with an average finish of 4.8. Only… yep, you’ve guessed it, the man everyone wanted to write off a few short weeks back – Johnson – can better that, with 690 points and an average finish of 3.5.

This time one year ago, it was a very different story. Smoke won his first race as an owner in the All-Star Challenge, took the lead in the standings after Dover, and followed it up with a first points-paying victory for Stewart-Haas Racing at Pocono. He won at Daytona (remember the last-lap wreck of an overly aggressive Kyle Busch?), Watkins Glen and Kansas, charging into the Chase having held the overall lead in the points for some three-and-a-half months. The start of the playoffs eviscerated his lead, though, and although he opened up the postseason with a win, a top five and two more top 10s in the first six races, he couldn’t match Johnson and his challenge for a first title as an owner/driver since the late, great Alan Kulwicki faded away as the leaves fell from the trees in 1992.

But while things are looking up for Stewart, don’t expect him to be lulled into any sort of sense of false security by his better form of late. “Everybody talks about momentum and it’s a theory, I guess, in all reality,” he said after Loudon. “Still doesn’t matter what we did today, or last week, or two weeks ago, when it comes time next Friday to go on the racetrack, we have got to do our job and do it right.”

That’s as much as you’re going to get from him; but it’s a far cry from how he felt after the Richmond race in early May. Back then, while mired in his slump of sorts, Stewart did admit to being in a “Twilight Zone.”

“We’re confused,” he said then. “Darian [Grubb] and I are both confused with what’s going on and why it’s going on. The good thing is the morale on our team is really high, still. Darian and I are side-by-side on it. Our attitude with each other is great.”

Somehow, aided by some luck – especially at Pocono – Stewart and Grubb have negotiated the tricky waters and put the No. 14 back where it belongs: in contention for the big prizes.

Aiding matters is the fact that, statistically speaking, Stewart’s about to embark on a stretch of five races at tracks where he tends to run well. He’s won the summer Daytona race three times, has 17 top 10s in 23 races (plus two wins) at Pocono, while Watkins Glen (5.3 average finish) is his best track by the numbers. Indianapolis, couched in late July, is his second-best (8.5 average finish), and Chicago his fourth-best (9.6 average finish.) So the signs, then, are good regardless of how swiftly Stewart dismisses the “momentum” factor. And as we’ve seen in the last four years, leading the points at the commencement of the Chase hasn’t helped Matt Kenseth (2006), Jeff Gordon (2007), Kyle Busch (2008) and Stewart himself (2009) close the deal and take home the big prize. Of course, Smoke did take the points lead into the 2005 Chase and hold serve (you have to have a tennis analogy while Wimbledon is in progress) to earn his second crown. So maybe this slow and steady approach will help Stewart head into the Chase in the best form possible, with all the parts and pieces working in optimal fashion.

As always, though, Stewart’s uptick in form has roots in the work done at the shop. Veteran Competition Director at SHR, Bobby Hutchens, whose wife so very sadly passed away from breast cancer right before Christmas last year, is at the forefront of that leadership – not letting the unimaginable tragedy affect his approach, something both Newman and Stewart pointed out on Showtime’s Inside NASCAR show last week. And it’s a theme Smoke echoed at the post-race press conference Sunday: “Nobody has quit on the deal,” he explained. “We have all just dug deeper and, you know, it’s hard when you’re down like that. It’s hard to keep motivated and keep everybody pumped up, and we all kind of have to pat each other on the back and keep each other pumped up. I’m as guilty of it as anybody, but I’m really proud. [When] we go back to the shop, I’m going to make sure I’m going to take the time to thank everybody.” And you can bet he will.

So after a rough start to 2010 and his sophomore year as an owner/driver, Stewart looks rejuvenated, refreshed and ready to tackle the meat of the ”Race to the Chase” schedule. Then, of course, should come the playoffs (barring a disaster) and as the only man to have ever won under both the old and the new points format, you’d figure Stewart would be a huge (no pun intended) factor. Will it be enough to top Jimmie? Well, time will tell, as it always does, but given where he was in the “Twilight Zone” just a few short months ago, things are definitely looking up for Smoke and crew.

One quick Formula 1 point to finish with: I wrote a few weeks back about Sebastian Vettel taking out his teammate Mark Webber in a hugely naïve and utterly ill-advised move when the Red Bull pair were running first and second, and I want to mention Webber again this week – this time for very different reasons. Webber was running in 16th, after a horrible start to the Grand Prix, desperate to make up some spots before this happened. Incredible… and oh, he walked away fine, which is remarkable in itself.

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