If Tony Stewart is going to make a move in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the three-time champion might want to consider doing so sooner rather than later. As the drivers come to Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 (1 PM ET, Fox), Stewart is in a big hole.
A few numbers will put Stewart’s struggles in perspective. With 207 points, he’s 41 back of playoff qualification as a wild-card. That’s a problem, but hardly insurmountable—one win puts Stewart back into a wild-card slot. But Stewart is a driver that’s not only won three Sprint Cups (2002, 2005, 2011), he’s been in the Top 10 every year but one since he came onto the circuit in 1999. And that one non-Top 10 year? He finished 11th.
This year Stewart is not only well behind the leaders, but only finished in the top 10 one time. It turns out his 41st-place finish at Daytona set the tone for the early part of his season. Of the last seven races, Stewart’s been out of the Top 20 four different times, as low as 31st and has only held the lead in two races this year.
I asked TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR junkie, my brother Bill, the reason for the trouble and he placed the blame on the Stewart team. Echoing words he told me last week when we briefly touched on this topic, Bill blamed the setups that are causing problems for all the drivers on the Stewart-Haas Team. “They’re behind the curve on the mile and a half tracks and most of the tracks are a mile and a half,” Bill said. “Without good setups, you struggle all race.” Stewart’s problems are shared by fellow team drivers Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick, although at least they have the excuse that they aren’t a part owner of the team.
If we were going to pick a week for Stewart to turn it around, Talladega would be it. It’s a superspeedway, which Bill termed “the equalizer”, the long tracks and wide open racing that create uncertainty. “There’s some been both spectacular wrecks and spectacular wins,” he noted. Bill’s thesis that the entire Stewart-Haas Team’s troubles can be focused on the size of the track is backed up by the fact that Patrick ran strongly at Daytona—and if you’re looking for a model for Talladega, the track at Daytona would be it.
The Las Vegas oddsmakers are also expecting uncertainty in this race, as no one is a prohibitive favorite. You normally see the favorite’s odds come in at 6-1 or maybe 8-1. This week? Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are each slotted as the 10-1 co-favorite. What’s more revealing is that twelve drivers are stacked between 10-1 and 15-1, so Vegas is clearly on board with the “anything goes” approach to Sunday’s race.
HAMLIN & LOGANO
Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano had a highly publicized feud after the former hurt his back earlier in the season. Hamlin has been cleared by the doctors to race and will be back at Talladega. Logano, in an unrelated event, lost the first appeal of a points penalty that was given to both him and defending champ Brad Keselowski.
While the penalty is the same for both Keselowski and Logano, it’s more important to the latter. Logano is thirty points out of a wild-card playoff spot coming into Sunday and twenty-five of those points are due to the sanction. Keselowski is seventh and still in comfortable shape to qualify for the postseason, at which time his point totals won’t matter.