FICTION: Tony Stewart is in serious trouble this season.
40th, 30th, 33rd, 39th. Not exactly a great start to the season, right? Sound the alarm bells! Tony Stewart is in major trouble and just won’t be able to turn it around this season… not! Quite a bit of space has been spent on Stewart’s struggles this season. With two DNFs in four events, the No. 14 team has failed to finish on the lead lap this season and has scored a measly 32 points, sitting well behind teammates Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick and even Kurt Busch, who has made just a single start this season. In fact, there are five drivers that have not run all four races that currently sit ahead of Stewart in the standings.
While Stewart has started the season in a pretty deep hole if he expects have a chance to the Chase, it’s really not the end of the world… yet. With just four races down, there are still 22 events until the Chase field is set and 32 before the season ends. While the No. 14 team was pretty much out to lunch in Atlanta and Las Vegas, Stewart did show signs of strength at Phoenix on Sunday. He was running inside the top 10 when he collided with Justin Allgaier, taking himself out of the race.
It was a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark season for Stewart, and it’s certainly something for him to hold onto headed to the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway this weekend. Of course, the old fallback is that Stewart heats up during the summer months, and it’s only mid-March. While that heat hasn’t necessarily turned up the last couple of years, Stewart hasn’t exactly been fully focused, missing races in both of the previous two years. With all of that said, the bottom line is that the No. 14 team needs a turnaround in a hurry… and Stewart CAN lead that charge, though if he’s going to make the Chase, a trip to Victory Lane is likely his only shot.
FACT: NASCAR needs a new face in Victory Lane in Fontana.
Harvick and Jimmie Johnson have combined to win seven of the last 10 Sprint Cup races dating back to Charlotte last October. The duo have led 1,417 of 3,055 laps run (46%), including those events they didn’t win. Johnson has been the driver to beat for several years now, and while the No. 48 team has shown some vulnerability in the last year or so, he’s far from a driver to bet against when it comes to a solid championship pick. Harvick, on the other hand, is riding a huge wave of momentum as the defending champion. He and crew chief Rodney Childers have shown the pair are nearly unstoppable and show no signs of that changing any time soon, having won the last two events in dominating fashion, while finishing runner-up in the first two races this season.
While success in NASCAR is definitely what every driver on the track wants, the reality is that fans – with the exception of those that follow the driver(s) laying waste to the rest of the field – need variety when it comes to Victory Lane. The television ratings for Phoenix are a glaring reminder that one driver’s dominance at a single track (see Harvick’s four straight wins at the facility) can easily deter fans from sitting around to watch the inevitable.
FACT: Rivalries are healthy for the sport.
Dating back to the “classic” NASCAR era, rivalries have driven the sport and its fans for many years. Just pay attention at the track during driver intros and you’ll hears the cheers AND jeers each driver gets. NASCAR fans are some of the most passionate in sports, and their drivers are just as fierce, often bringing bent fenders, tempers flaring and fists flying. While NASCAR has long tried to shed the Southern redneck image that has followed it around for so long, the rivalries that come out of those bent fenders and wrecked cars make the sport something unique. While other sports have their rivalries, those typically pit team against team (see Cowboys/Redskins; Yankees/Red Sox to name a couple).
But those rivalries are part of what keep the fans coming back for more, and while none will never admit it publicly, I feel like even the drivers involved need that adrenaline boost from time to time. On Wednesday, Brad Keselowski wrote a blog for his website that detailed his history with Kyle Busch, dating all the way back to the Truck Series when the duo was 17 and 16, respectively. Born of jealousy in the early days, Keselowski and Busch have had their fair share of run-ins through the top-three series in NASCAR, and all have been very well documented.
The reality is that NASCAR needs these rivalries. It’s what drives the passion of fans. In fact, I can remember growing up and wearing my then-favorite driver’s colors and taking quite a bit of flack for doing so. Fans are intensely loyal to their drivers and will stand vehemently against anyone who does their driver wrong, even if it’s only a perceived wrong. NASCAR just wouldn’t be the same if those rivalries didn’t exist and limits weren’t tested.