Tony Stewart finished 17th Sunday in the 21st running of the Brickyard 400 driving his #14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet. Yet another middle of the pack showing for the three-time Sprint Cup champion, in a season filled with middle of the pack showings. With 16 left on the schedule, Smoke faces the threat of his first winless season ever.
The Indiana native burst on the Cup scene in 1999 driving the #20 Home Depot Pontiac for Joe Gibbs Racing, winning three times in his rookie year. And the wins didn’t stop after that. The 2000 season saw him win a career high six races, and he has had at least one win every year since.
But this year has been a struggle. Not only has he not won a race, but he has not even been close to contending for a win at the end of almost all 20 races so far this year, scoring only two top five finishes.
If Stewart has looked to break out of his slump, Indianapolis must have seemed like an oasis in the desert. After all, this is the track in which he has scored nine top 10 finishes in the previous ten seasons, including two victories in that span. It’s also the home track for the Hoosier, a track that has always been very close to his racing heart.
However, Stewart’s car showed no chance of contending for a victory Sunday. Qualifying 6th on the grid, Smoke spent much of the day outside of the top 15, running in the middle of the pack at a place where track position is king.
With the poor finish at Indy, Stewart sits 19th in points, with a real chance of missing the Chase for the first time since 2006 (not including his injury shortened 2013 season).
Will Smoke be able to turn his season around in the final stretch leading up to the Chase? Fans can remember his 2011 championship season, a year in which he went winless in the regular season, only to roll off an astounding 5 wins in the 10 race playoff. This feat is unlikely to happen again, by any driver.
But even with the mediocre finish at the Brickyard, perhaps Smoke will return to his winning ways very soon.
Less than a year after breaking his leg in a Sprint car race, he returned to the series to win during a Friday night race at Tri-City Motor Speedway in Auburn, Michigan during the Cup off week.
In this interview before the Cup race Sunday, he discussed the boost in the arm the sprint car win gave him:
It was a confidence boost for me…But dealing with when you haven’t won, and you haven’t been necessarily a contender to be in the top two or three each week and having those opportunities to win races this year, you start questioning what is it in the equation you’re missing…Is it something you’re not doing as a driver? To be able to go out and win on Friday night and ran third on Saturday night, and to have two good runs like that in a car that I haven’t been in for almost a full year now, that was a huge confidence boost and made me feel like, hey, maybe we’ll just meet and find something else.
And as all of us race fans know by now, a win will get you into the Chase…even if your name is Aric Almirola. Stewart has six more races to find victory lane. Six more races to qualify for the Chase. He is a racer with the pure talent to win at any track on any given weekend. Never count him out, but he better hurry up.