The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has twelve races under their belt in the 2014 season, and while there’s still plenty of time for struggling drivers to recover, it’s also deep enough into the year to start taking notice of who is having problems. And of the most significant of those still looking to find their traction is Tony Stewart.
Stewart is a three-time champion, the most recent coming in 2011. But he was not a serious contender in 2012, even though he did qualify for the Chase For The Cup. 2013 was worse, as the struggles continued, and any hope at a push for a playoff berth disappeared when Stewart broke his leg. 2014 hasn’t gotten much better—even with an expanded 16-driver field for the postseason, Stewart would still not qualify for the Chase For The Cup if the season ended today.
“His whole team is struggling,” said TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR junkie, my brother Bill. “They’re having problems on the intermediate-range tracks and not getting the engineering at. Most of the races are run on those kinds of tracks, so if you’re not handling those, you’ve got problems.
Stewart’s team bears his own name, the Stewart-Haas Racing Team, and Bill notes that the problems go up and down the ladder. That’s been somewhat obscured by the fact that team member Kevin Harvick has two wins. But dig a little bit below the surface and you see Harvick at 22nd in the points standings. With the new NASCAR postseason qualification rules making wins more important than points, it won’t hurt Harvick, but it underscores that he’s not driving consistently—and this is the driver who’s the crown jewel of Stewart-Haas thus far.
Danica Patrick is another driver in Stewart’s fiefdom that’s having problems. Yesterday, when previewing the Kentucky Derby, I took a little sideways swipe at Danica, in comparing her to female jockey Rosie Napravnik, and said that unlike Danica, “Rosie actually wins races.” Actually, I guess there’s nothing sideways about that swipe on Danica, it’s pretty much a straight-up slam.
Bill has a more positive view of Danica, and believes that the combination of what is still her relative youth, along with the fact that she’s driving in a team that’s having collective problems, should get her off the work. Bill did acknowledge though, that eventually Danica needs to win a race—she’s got one on the Indy Car circuit, but never with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Sunday’s race is the Aaron’s 499 and it goes at Talladega, down in Alabama. Talladega is a track similar to Daytona, where there’s a certain amount of chaos and anything can happen. The fact that the last two winners at Talladega have been relative nobodies in David Ragan and Jamie MacMurray (both have been around a while, but never made a serious impact) emphasizes that point.
Tony Stewart is still commanding respect on the betting lines—he’s a 12-1 shot to win on Sunday in a field where the favorite, Dale Earnhardt Junior is at 10-1. Stewart is only a couple points out of the playoffs. But somewhere along the line, this championship driver needs to reclaim his mojo.