There have been many, many times when Tony Stewart could have seriously challenged for the season title. One of the sport’s most versatile drivers, his ability to turn scorching hot during a season’s second half in midsummer makes him the perfect closer under NASCAR’s hokey, let’s make a stick-and-ball playoff system. Already the owner of two Sprint Cup titles, most times seeing Stewart pop up at or near the top of the Chase wouldn’t do much more than raise an eyebrow.
Until this year. For Halloween, the perfect costume for this aging veteran should have been the Grim Reaper; his entry to the Chase, more than any other not named Denny Hamlin, was supposed to mean little for a championship bid predicted to be DOA (dead on arrival).
So much for that. On the heels of a third Chase victory, his third in the last seven races, the man tied for the playoff’s worst seed is well on the way to No. 1. Just eight points back of Edwards, armed with more past experience and that bubbling confidence, bordering on cockiness that made him a household name it’s clear that where there’s Smoke these days… there’s championship fire.
“He better be worried, that’s for sure,” said Stewart of his championship rival after conquering Martinsville. “He isn’t going to have an easy three weeks.”
“It’s awesome we have that opportunity, an awesome feeling sitting here. You cherish the opportunities. You make sure that when you have [one], you make the most of it.”
Especially those chances that weren’t supposed to come. 2011, you see was supposed to be the season Stewart-Haas Racing fizzled in the midst of financial, personnel, and personal distractions. Keep in mind that right now, they don’t even have a Competition Director who’s dedicated to the task full-time; Bobby Hutchens, fired mid-season in the midst of poor performance and questionable attendance, has left a “Help Wanted” ad that has yet to find a viable candidate. Matt Borland, once Ryan Newman’s crew chief at Penske Racing is the Vice President of Competition, but doing the job solo: the hiring for that job almost certainly won’t occur until the offseason. Hutchens’ departure came after June 1st, typically the moment a sleepy Stewart wakes up and starts racing.
But the “Boy of Summer” never jumpstarted his season. From Las Vegas in March to Loudon in mid-July, a span of 15 races, Stewart went without a top-5 finish, led just 60 laps and saw his pit crew botch several stops at clutch moments. Even after that, despite clinging to the 10th and final spot in points, team and driver never established their typical summer consistency. You saw Stewart regress, becoming defensive and even temperamental with the media while unable to come up with answers to poor performance.
For the first time, rumors of Darian Grubb’s job security briefly surfaced; a Stewart-Greg Zipadelli reunion, either in a front office role or with his Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief on top of the pit box was a possibility. Going winless during June, July, August, and Labor Day Weekend Stewart put up a goose egg in that stretch for just the third time in his Cup career: only in 1999, as a rookie and during his “lame duck” JGR season in ’08 did he put up worse numbers.
And that wasn’t all. Danica, Danica, Danica, the world tour of female marketing and 24-hour will she or won’t she distraction pestered Stewart for much of the year. It was the rumor of her attachment to his race team, more than any other which presented an off-again, on-again media circus until the final announcement was made in late August. With expansion comes the burden of sponsorship, which Stewart has had to worry about not only for the new third car (which he hopes to bring full-time with another driver) but the No. 39 team driven by Ryan Newman. The U.S. Army, a year-to-year deal is for only half the schedule; behind the scenes, marketing has been frantic to ensure that car doesn’t skip a beat.
Through it all, there’s the reminder Stewart gets Hendrick chassis and engines, an oft-mentioned championship obstacle that will wind up causing a whole lot of us “analysts” to eat crow. Entering this postseason, there were two Hendrick cars – Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon – running far more consistently while a third, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would fill the bank with millions through a championship upset. Stewart and Newman, fourth and fifth on the ladder, just seemed to be afterthoughts, incapable of mounting a challenge in a season when simply making it should have been enough.
So where in the heck did Stewart come from? All he did was win Chicago and Loudon the first two weeks, fuel mileage races where he was a deserved top-5 contender and then back it up with a Martinsville victory on Sunday. No one else has more than a single win in these playoffs. Heck, only two other drivers – Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick – have more victories this season. It’s a run that, well, has even Stewart scratching his head.
“I don’t know what changes,” he said Sunday, trying to point to Grubb as the motivator. “He [Grubb’s] the guy that’s orchestrating it, organizing the people to do the job. It doesn’t matter what it is that’s changed; the good thing is that it has and it changed at the right time when we need it. That’s all you can ask for.”
Of course, the _National Enquirer_ in all of us might reference Stewart’s rumored breakup as part of the solution. His “dead weight” comment, uttered after Chicago’s victory made reference to making a giant personal change in his life. But that came one week after a Richmond incident with the media, a public smackdown of a national reporter reminding us all Smoke’s mood swings were a thing of the present, not the past. Nowhere, it seemed, was the focus needed for a championship run the likes of which he hadn’t put together seriously in six years.
Martinsville was the perfect example of just how confusing this championship run has been. At the midpoint of the race, Stewart was nothing more than annoying lapped traffic, in front of Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, and Jimmie Johnson as a 16th-place car simply refusing to go a lap down. With as late as 100 laps to go, the No. 14 car was nowhere near contention, tire problems and failed pit stops to fix the handling leaving Stewart borderline cantankerous on the radio. But then a two-tire stop, made with 40 laps to go vaulted Stewart up nine spots and into the top-5 late. And in a world where track position is key, even during Sunday’s Demolition Derby, that was enough for Stewart to press all the right buttons at all the right times.
So here we are, with three races left. While Stewart is second in points, he’s clearly outperformed everyone else. Perhaps that’s what’s most bizarre about this situation, a severe thunderstorm watch threatening to become an all-out explosion for NASCAR: the hottest driver in the Chase is still losing to someone who hasn’t won even once during the playoff. It would be one thing if Stewart had posted a DNF, but he hasn’t; those three wins and five top-10 finishes he has come packaged with a worst finish of 25th. Even under the old system, Stewart would be remarkably more competitive with Edwards, down by 11 points (6,090 to 6,079) where a win plus leading the most laps meant Stewart still controlled his own destiny next week.
Strangely enough, under this one even if the No. 14 car goes out and leads every lap at Texas next week, all Carl Edwards has to do is finish third to keep the point lead.
And that makes sense… because? Perhaps a topic for another day. In the point system’s defense, this Chase, defined by the favorites faltering (Johnson, Gordon, Kyle Busch) and the unexpected rise of a champ, back from the dead has already been bizarre enough. Carl Edwards is the only favorite left who has yet to topple flat on his face. But the way Stewart is charging now, acting like a man with nothing to lose, Cousin Carl better hope his Halloween costume is some sort of policeman.
After all, he’s going to need an extra sense of security going forward.
“[Carl’s] a great competitor, he’s a great guy, he’s with a great organization that deserves their shot at that championship, too,” said Stewart. “We’ve had one of those up-and-down years and we’re having a run in this Chase now where we’re hungry. We’re hungry for this. I feel like our mindset into these next three weeks, we’ve been nice all year to a lot of guys, given guys a lot of breaks. We’re cashing tickets in these next three weeks.”
That’s Tony Stewart, suddenly on top of the world in a season that seemed all but lost as late as early September.
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