Race Weekend Central

7th Place Finish Great For Stewart… But Not Good Enough For NASCAR’s Chase

It took too long.  Tony Stewart kept his No. 14 Chevrolet within camera shot of the leader for the vast majority of Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400.  About five years ago, a seventh-place finish would have had the often dour Stewart shrugging off a standard but ultimately mediocre race.  Yesterday, the veteran climbed from his car and declared the afternoon’s effort good enough to make him “tickled to death.”  Ah, how times have changed.

However, since his return from a severe back injury and resultant surgery in the off-season, NASCAR Nation has been waiting for his retirement tour to take off.  Instead, it has simply sputtered along, much as the No. 14 has been doing for the past three years.

It really wasn’t until we reached Pocono that we saw the Mobil-1 team come back to life–back to life, as in jetting around the track like the car had somewhere to be.  Stewart qualified a very healthy sixth at the Tricky Triangle and was running well when he collected Danica Patrick in a lap 92 incident, which basically ended his day.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)
Tony Stewart had reason to smile after Michigan, but his Chase hopes are dimming.(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

He arrived at Michigan with a smile on his face and insisted he suffered no ill effects from the previous week’s incident.  His strong third-place qualification run had the fans wondering if this might be something of a fluke, but the No. 14 machine remained firmly in that spot for the majority of the race.

We can’t say we’re disappointed with his finish.  Tony finally had a good day.  However, there is a wistful note to water cooler conversations when discussing the champion’s last year on the Sprint Cup Tour.  Wouldn’t it be nice if he could go out with his head held high?  Let’s have the No. 14 win.  Let’s have Tony make the Chase.

Look, not every retiring veteran is going to have a Jeff Gordon kind of final year, where the team that has been entertaining the crowds for twenty years starts up front with the kids every week and makes a serious run for the championship.  It just doesn’t happen.  Normally by the time a driver is ready to hang up the steering wheel, it is because they just don’t have it happening for them any longer.

Stewart’s fire fizzled somewhere around 2012, after a well-documented serious injury and personal challenges outside of NASCAR.  He has continued to remain a respected member of the garage and a supporter of small-track competition throughout the states, but finding the rhythm for the consistency required of a Sprint Cup Chase team has eluded them.

Call it adjustments to the car designs, loss of horsepower, loss of downforce…none of that is mattering to the teams that have a place saved for them in the 2016 Chase.  The lack of performance while citing the annual changes are simply excuses for the teams that don’t have the magical equation for a winning car on their pit box.

All in all, the No. 14’s performance at Michigan was really nice to see. However, it lacked the conviction of Kyle Busch‘s shot straight to the top of the standings in 2015.  Stewart may see a win before his final year is over, but we should not expect to see him Chasing the stars come September.

It might be nice, but I don’t think it will be real.

SOMETHING SHINY

The young guns are here!  With the Sprint Cup podium supporting Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson this week at Michigan, the future of the sport is present for everyone to see. The average age of the trio is a mere 23 years.  Yep, we are looking at men younger than most of our children leaving home for the first time. When were we so concerned that we had no one able to take over the reigns of our sport?

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