Smoke Will Rise
A lot has been made about the slow start to the 2015 season by Tony Stewart. In a way, that should be expected since he's been one of NASCAR's brightest stars for more than a decade. At the same however, it seems recently some are wondering if the three time champion has passed his prime. There are even some questioning whether Stewart will win again.
This situation isn't new. Some were asking the same questions about Jeff Gordon just a few short years ago. Even as recently as the beginning of last year, some were asking if the combination of Gordon's back issues and lack of recent dominance would force him out. He answered those questions resoundly in 2014 with four wins, his highest season total since 2007. He also threw in 14 top 5 finishes for good measure as made fans sit up again and realize he could be and was a title contender. That attention has carried over into the current season. Although he hasn't scored a win yet, he's been competitive and currently ranks 9th in points. Jeff Gordon is going to leave the sport at the end of this year, still a factor and still on top of his game.
Many drivers fortunate enough to have a career that spans two decades or more, are able to remain competitive until the end. Even if they don't win, they are still racing for wins and earning top 5 and top 10 finishes frequently enough that they're still viewed as factors in each race. Names like Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett come to mind. Of course, not every driver is able to leave the sport on top of their game. For all the glory they earned, both Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip ended their fabulous careers without winning a race in 8 years. Unfortunately, it wasn't just a bad finish or poor pit decision that kept them from winning. Neither were anywhere near competitive for their last several years. As silly as it seems, it feels like there's a great rush to throw Tony Stewart into that category.
Stewart's last Cup win came in the spring race at Dover in 2013. Later that year of course, he broke his leg in a sprint cup crash. Media members as well as many fans wondered at the time if they'd seen the last of Smoke in NASCAR's highest series. Once he recovered, perhaps it was time that he focus on his ownership role, many mused. Yet, after missing the final 15 races of that year, he was back at Daytona at the start of last season, ready to race.
He earned back to back top five finishes through the end of July when the series left Indianapolis. At that time, he was 19th in points. Then of course, he was involved in the very tragic situation involving Kevin Ward in Canandaigua, New York. Dealing with emotions the rest of us cannot even fathom, he missed three races before returning to the 14 at Atlanta. He only scored one more top five after that, a 4th at Martinsville. He ended the year with more finishes of 40th or worse (4) than he had top five's. That's when the rumbling really began. Considering everything he'd been through off the track in the last two years, combined with his sudden lack of on track success, had we seen the last of Tony Stewart as a winning, competitive Sprint Cup driver?
Although he proclaimed at the start of this year that he was going back to being the old Tony Stewart we'd all known, it certainly wasn't followed up with old Tony Stewart results. After leaving Daytona with a next to last finish, 30th position was his best result through the first month of the season. Suddenly the question became, "What's wrong with Stewart?" Although the finishes improved slightly over the next few weeks, they still weren't up to the standards he and his fans expected. Then the series went to Bristol.
Between the raindrops and wrecks, Tony managed to finish in 6th place, his best finish since that last season 4th at Martinsville last season. Fittingly, his first solid result of the season came on a short track. That helped him jump 4 positions in points to 28th. It's still not where he wants to be but it's a start and more importantly, it gets him solidly inside the top 30 and helps in remaining Chase-eligible should he win this year. So at this point, that's the question; will Tony Stewart win a race this season? The short and quick answer to that question is, yes. Tony Stewart will win again in the Sprint Cup Series and he will probably win this season. Why?
First of all, the man definitely has the talent to win. Fans and the media would be foolish to count out someone who's come back from what he's had to come back from over the past two years. Secondly, his team is good enough to win. Say what you want about Chad Johnston as crew chief. Tony knows what he's doing and the success of all the Stewart-Haas driver/crew chief combinations of late cannot be denied. Additionally, the entire team has consistently performed better than any other team this season. Kevin Harvick has been the one to beat almost every week. Kurt Busch has been a factor and running at the front since he came back and even the much maligned Danica Patrick sits 13th in points right now. The fact that Hendrick horsepower motors the team shouldn't be forgotten.
Finally, we're just now in the middle of April. Traditionally, Stewart hasn't gotten hot until later in the season. A look at the last five seasons shows eight of his most recent wins coming after the series visits Daytona in July. He's earned three in the first half of the season in that same span. Besides the wins, his overall results improve as the season progresses. Why anyone, fans or media, would count Stewart out at this early juncture is beyond reason.
A streak starts with one and after Bristol, Tony has that one, that one good finish. Nothing breeds confidence like success and now for the first time this year, he earned some success. Look out. You're going to see Smoke rise.