Can Tony Stewart salvage season?
Tony Stewart is struggling more than ever before in his career, and it's worse than it looks. This is the low point of his career.
Consider these numbers:
• In 15 Sprint Cup seasons, Stewart never has gone seven consecutive races without posting a top-10, until now.
• He never before had a stretch where he finished outside the top 10 in 10 of 11 starts (dating back to the end of last season), as he has now.
• He never had an average finish of 21.1, which he has at the moment. His worst was 14.9 in 2008.
• Stewart never has gone through a stretch like this one where he finished so poorly compared to where he started each event. He's a minus-7.5 (13.6 to 21.1) this year, the worst of any full-time Cup driver. His previous worse was minus-0.7 in 2003 and 2010.
• He never has finished a season worse than 11th in the standings. He's 22nd after the first nine races of 2013.
• Stewart has finished on the lead lap in only five of nine races this year. He has failed to finish on the lead lap in 10 of the past 17 races, dating back to last season.
• Stewart has led a lap in only one of the past 15 races, 18 laps at Fontana earlier this year, the worst stretch of his career. He went 10 consecutive races without leading lap from the end of last year through the first four races this year. The only other time that happened was the start of the 2000 season.
• Stewart-Haas Racing has gone 27 consecutive races without a victory, the longest winless streak for SHR since Stewart took over as the team owner in 2009.
That's a statistical picture of despair for one of the best drivers ever to sit in a stock car.
Matt Kenseth, who is having one of his best seasons, despite the 50-point NASCAR penalty for the engine violations, sympathizes with what Stewart is going through.
"It's frustrating, and you want to get it fixed as soon as you can," Kenseth said. "Certainly if you hang around in this sport long enough -- well, maybe with the exception of Jimmie Johnson -- you're going to go through a slump.
"You'll have a time where you're not putting up the numbers you should put up and not running the way you know your team is capable of running. But you see another side of things, and it's something you can learn from. And it makes you appreciate the good times so much more."
Stewart has endured rough patches in the past, including the 2011 season, when he won his third Cup title. He was so frustrated with things during the summer that he said he didn't belong in the Chase. Once the playoff started, he won five times.
But that regular-season low point was nothing like this one. Stewart never ranked worse than 12th in the standings in 2011. This season seems unexplainable.
"It happens," Kenseth said. "You can win one week and finish last the next week. I think everybody handles it differently. There's not a secret formula for everybody to follow. For me, when things go bad, I try not to get too low. And when things are good, I try not to get too high."
It might work for Stewart, but it's not his nature. Unlike Kenseth, Stewart wears his emotions on his sleeve. Stewart had postrace altercations this season with Joey Logano at Fontana and Kurt Busch last weekend at Richmond.
Stewart had a chance to finish strong in both events but felt those drivers -- blocking by Logano and a bump from Busch -- kept him from doing so. The good news is he was running well in those races.
So what's the answer? I receive emails and chat questions every week from fans asking, "What's wrong with Stewart and his team?"
If I knew that answer, I would be making a lot of money working at SHR. If they don't know, I certainly don't know. No one does, although plenty of people have their theories.
Here are four you've probably heard:
1. Adding Danica Patrick to race a third car has drained resources and taken Stewart's focus away from his own team.
I'm not buying it. Patrick's addition brought millions of dollars from the Go Daddy sponsorship, money SHR needed after losing some of its 2011 sponsors. If becoming a team owner in 2009 didn't distract Stewart, I don't see how adding a third car is distracting him now. But Patrick isn't racing well enough for SHR to benefit from any data off the third car.
2. Hendrick Motorsports officials aren't supplying equal equipment to SHR any longer because they were tired of Stewart beating them.
The conspiracy theorists love this one, but it's another bogus idea. Hendrick isn't giving SHR damaged goods or inferior equipment. However, it is possible that the SHR crew chiefs haven't figured out the new Gen-6 as quickly as the Hendrick boys have.
3. Newman probably is a lame duck at SHR, so the communication between him and the rest of the organization may be lacking.
Another no. Newman and Stewart are close. They will help each other all they can as long as they can. And Newman, who isn't running a lot better than Stewart, wants to race as well as he can this season to enhance his chances of getting a good Cup ride in 2014.
4. Stewart misses former crew chief Darian Grubb.
I can see the truth in this one. Grubb and Stewart parted ways after Grubb helped lead Stewart to the 2011 title with the remarkable run in the Chase. Stewart brought in veteran crew chief Steve Addington, and the team ran well in the 2012 regular season, winning three times and starting the Chase No. 2 in the standings.
But something's missing. Part of it could be that Grubb came from Hendrick and had a strong working relationship with everyone there. So in a way, this relates back to the second theory.
Whatever the reasons are for the slump, Stewart and the team need to find some answers soon. Could it happen at Talladega this weekend?
Talladega always is unpredictable, but it could be a place where Stewart starts a turnaround. He won there in 2008 and has finished second six times on the giant Alabama oval.
It isn't his favorite place, but Stewart knows it's a chance to do well.
"I'm not any happier about it than I've always been," Stewart said of the upcoming Talladega race. "But we've had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks, especially Talladega. I'm glad we're halfway decent at it, but it's still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does.
"It's not what you do. It's what you do along with somebody else who decides they're going to follow you and help you. That's the part that frustrates you as a driver. Someone described it as a combination of a science project and the luck of a casino."
Stewart would take a little casino-style luck these days, but counting him out would be foolish. Of Stewart 47 career victories, 33 have come from the 18th race of the year until the end of the season.
He also has 24 career victories from the 10th race of the year until the end of the regular season. Things could change, but it will take a major turnaround for Stewart to view 2013 as a success.
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