If there’s anyone who needs a rebound at this point – excluding Dale Earnhardt Jr, of course – it’s Tony Stewart. Stewart has been out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the last six races, his longest stretch outside of the Chase up to this point in a season since NASCAR changed from a 10-contender format to 12 in 2007.
Before the race at Darlington Raceway, Stewart characterized his struggles as merely a slump. He said:
It’s hard. There’s nothing easy about what we do. You’re competing against 41 other guys each week and it’s not always clear cut what the right answer is and where the problem lies. But that’s what makes it so rewarding when you do have things going your way and you’ve got stuff figured out. We’re just kind of in a slump right now.
That hardly sounds like a man who was panicked about his Stewart Haas Racing team’s struggles. As a matter of fact, at that time he seemed at least optimistic. He said:
We’re not proud of how we’re running right now. We know we’re better than that, but we’re going to get it sorted out and get going again.
Granted that is a somewhat generic response usually given by a driver who is experienced enough to know not to throw his crew and his crew chief under the bus. (I hope you’re taking notes Danica.) But still, for someone like Stewart who has always said exactly what was on his mind no matter the consequences; to hear this had to give some of his fans hope.
They are surely aware of how well Stewart runs in the summer. (I’m sure Stewart is aware as well.) He seems to hit his stride around June, a stride he usually carries into the fall and the Chase. While he didn’t have any wins from race 14 to race 26 in 2008, he had at least three over that same span in 2007 and 2009. That’s a reason to be optimistic.
He is statistically the most likely driver outside of the Chase to make it based on his average over the next thirteen races versus the other drivers’ averages. But, there is a reason fans should be concerned.
He’s had six finishes of 23rd or worse so far this season. In 2007, he had five up to this point. In 2008 and 2009, he had none.
Also, in 2007, Stewart was never outside of top 12 in NASCAR driver’s points after week three. In 2008 and 2009, he was never outside of the Chase, ever. This year, however, he’s spent the last six races outside of the top 12 in points. That’s got to be worrisome for any Stewart fan.
Still, Pocono could turn things around for Stewart. In the last six races at the triangle track, he had five top 10s, four of which are top 6s with one win. He knows how to get around this place. And, it could be just the shot in the arm the No. 14 team needs.
Pocono kicks of a streak of good tracks historically for Stewart. At nine of the next 13 races, Stewart has an average finish of better than 10th in the last three years. If he can return to form and match that, he should be able to claw his way back into the Chase. But, if he is to have any hope whatsoever, it has to start now.