NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Mailbox: Is the Old Tony Stewart Back?

After an offseason injury, 2016 started out as the opposite of what Tony Stewart planned. His retirement tour didn’t begin until Richmond in late April, taking away from the hype of the three-time Sprint Cup champion’s final season. However, since Stewart came back to the No. 14 car, the swagger is still there. No, we aren’t talking about how he was sponsored by Old Spice a few years ago, either.

The intimidation factor Stewart presents is one that is rare in the NASCAR realm, essentially irreplaceable. His large build, combined with either a smirk or an angry look on his face has never gone away, nor will it … even after he rides into the sunset as a driver and transitions to a role solely as a team owner.

With the future of Stewart-Haas Racing, an operation Stewart joined after Haas CNC Racing’s seventh year of existence, now secure, he can relax and focus on competing for wins. It’s nothing new for him, but there has been a readjustment period, given he hasn’t won a race since Dover in June 2013.

Q: Will Tony Stewart be able to make the Chase? – John L., Miami

A: Michigan’s race was certainly a step in the right direction for Stewart. For the majority of the 400-mile contest on Sunday, the No. 14 car was competing in the top 5, a welcome sight for Stewart fans who are now shocked when he does so.

(Photo: John Harrelson / NKP)
Stewart has struggled to be competitive as of late, but had a strong run last weekend in Michigan. (Photo: John Harrelson / NKP)

Stewart didn’t drop outside of the top 5 until the latter stages of the race, finishing seventh, which is his best result since returning from his injury. A strong run is exactly what this No. 14 team needs, given he finished 24th or worse in three straight events, including a wreck at Pocono Raceway with teammate Danica Patrick.

The Stewart camp is determined to make it into the top 30 in points, which is a realistic goal considering how well he is running when staying out of trouble. Following Michigan, he sits 35th in the standings, 45 points behind 30th place Brian Scott with 11 races before the Chase cutoff. There is little doubt that Stewart will have trouble making it into the top 30. However, the question is, can he win?

The No. 14 car showed strength with the even lower downforce package at Michigan, a type of handling Stewart thrives on. Running well at the intermediate track of Kansas, finishing 12th in his second full race back from injury, he is putting himself in position to be just fine heading into the second part of the year.

However, a win will be difficult for Stewart.

While the season has been dominated by the Joe Gibbs Racing cars, the four-car stable struggled the past two weeks at Pocono and Michigan. Obviously, the team’s struggles won’t last long, but it is indeed a sign that the rest of the field is catching up.

Stewart traditionally heats up in the summer months, capitalizing on the hot, slick racetracks. Sonoma and Daytona are likely his best chances to get back into Victory Lane, given he has two victories at the road course and four wins in the July race at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Additionally, he has five wins at Watkins Glen, but none since 2009.

If Stewart can put himself in the right position, he will surely be able to drive into Victory Lane. A win would create a world full of emotions for a man that sometimes appears as if he has none.

Q: Clint Bowyer is struggling this year, but is slowly starting to get better. How will Stewart-Haas Racing do with him instead of Tony Stewart behind the wheel? – Lisa R., St. Louis

A: Let’s just start this off by comparing Clint Bowyer to his teammate, Michael Annett. Bowyer has a pair of top 10s, along with six top 20s. Meanwhile, Annett’s best finish this year is 27th in the season-opener at Daytona.

It might not be fair to compare the drivers given Bowyer is much more experienced and, frankly, more talented, than Annett. However, they are in the same equipment, with the No. 15 team beginning to run at — or even better than — the level Justin Allgaier ran throughout the 2015 campaign.

Bowyer is making the most out of his limited time with HScott Motorsports. Knowing he has a job lined up for next season, replacing Stewart at a championship-winning team is something he can take pride in. However, he is focused on the present, and frustrations might be at an all-time high.

Well, then again, it can’t get more frustrating than losing your job out of nowhere when you had a multi-year deal signed. But it’s OK, because Bowyer will be with a top-tier organization next year, rather than racing in the middle of the pack with Michael Waltrip Racing, his home from 2012 until the conclusion of last season.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)
Bowyer hasn’t been contending at a level that has come to be expected of him, but that could all change when he moves to SHR next year. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Bowyer will be back on his A-game next year, but there might be a period of readjusting to top-tier equipment. SHR is a rather odd case, with two of its drivers — Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch — been competing for wins, while the other two competitors — Stewart and Patrick — have struggled to run consistently in the top 20. If Stewart can continue the path he’s on now, it could set Bowyer up with plenty of momentum and confidence heading into next year.

The key for Bowyer will essentially be his ability to run consistently in the top 10. In his first two years with MWR, he was able to have back-to-back seasons with 10 top five, along with a career-high 23 top 10s in 2012. That capability does not just simply disappear.

Bowyer should be fine once he gets together with the No. 14 team — or whatever number it might be if the team opts to re-brand it.

With Stewart’s leadership from afar, he will be able to step back and be more of a leader than he already is. He will be able to focus on helping all four drivers, instead of worrying about his own efforts, along with the rest of the team.

Remember, 2017 is going to be a year of many unknowns for SHR. The move to Ford is still one that is shocking, and only time will tell how well the organization will adjust to competing with the blue oval.

Have a question? Email me at Joseph.Wolkin@Gmail.com and make sure to check back next week when we’ll answer your questions on all things NASCAR.

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