Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Is Stewart's plate too full for 2014 season?

It's hard to imagine a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and winner of 48 races who is on a top level team being an underdog coming into the season. But for several reasons, Tony Stewart may be just that. And for those same reasons, that may be bad news for Stewart's opponents.
Tony Stewart is back in action after suffering a
season ending  injury in a sprint car accident last August. 
One of those reasons is that Stewart is returning from the first major injury of his racing career. Stewart was doing something he truly loves last Aug. 5 when he was driving a sprint car at Southern Iowa Speedway and crashed and suffered a severely broken leg. It ended Stewart's hope of making the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship and his racing season all together.
Another reason is since Stewart is a team owner and major decision maker at Stewart-Haas Racing, he is in the middle of the planning for much of the team. And that got a little more complicated, or maybe even a lot more complicated, when it was announced that fellow owner and billionaire Gene Haas decided to hire Kurt Busch as the team's fourth driver. Just a couple of months earlier, Stewart had said the team wasn't ready for a fourth car. But when the owner with the deepest pocket book says let's go do something and I'm buying, well, you just go do it. So, this will be the first year for Stewart-Haas to have a four-car team and to think there won't be some bumps in the road along the way is simply not realistic.
And this is not just any four-car team. You've got Stewart, Busch, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick all together here. They all have strong personalities and really, do we know which one of these drivers is the most stubborn? Probably not and none of them would probably be where they are now without having that stubborn streak. But to think they won't have at least one blowup at some point in the season is a bit naive. Stewart certainly has matured since taking on the ownership role, and he may well be better at managing these personalities than many think. But expect Stewart to draw on some of the advice he received from former boss Joe Gibbs at least a couple of times this season in order to keep the peace.
For most drivers, getting a new crew chief is a pretty big deal, and without the injury and team changes, that would have been true for Stewart, too. But after two years with Steve Addington, Stewart has now hired Chad Johnston to be his crew chief. Sure, they can like each other, and sure they can talk all they want about learning each other's terminology and how to communicate. But it's not until they are trying to figure out something late in a pressure-packed race that that crew chief-driver relationship gets its real test. And no matter the experience of the driver and expertise of the crew chief, it's just an impossible situation to simulate. They are going to have an adjustment period, it's just a way of life and one more challenge Stewart will have to meet if he wants to win a fourth Sprint Cup title.
And finally, there is the age factor, too. Even though drivers can still be pretty competitive up into their late 40s, when it comes to winning championships, it's still a sport for the younger generation. Stewart has already beat the odds once there, winning his third title at the age of 40 in 2011. Of the 29 drivers to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, only Dale Earnhardt with three, and Joe Weatherly with two, have won multiple titles past the age of 40. The oldest title winner was Bobby Allison at the age of 45 in 1983. And of the 65 NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, a driver at age 40 or older has won the title just nine times. So the clock is ticking on Stewart. He's already beaten the odds once on this one and it won't be any easier to do it a second time.
One crazy thing that would happen if Stewart does happen to claim the crown, is that he will be the only driver to win under four different scoring systems. His first title in 2002 was under the original season-long system. Then he won again in 2005 under the first Chase points scenario. He captured his third title under a revised Chase system in 2011. So, he could make his own bit of history by winning this completely revamped elimination round/points system, too, which puts a major emphasis on wins, which is probably something Stewart likes.
And if you're into the whole number karma thing (which I'm not but can't help but notice this) is that it is 2014 and Stewart's car number is 14. Also, his 48 career wins just happen to be the car number of last year's champion, Jimmie Johnson. And then you've got the whole 3-6-3 thing going on here. What's that? Stewart went three years between his first and second title, then had a six-year gap until he won his third crown. Well, 2014 is three years since then, so you know, he's got that going too.
But what Stewart really has going for him is a lot more than numbers or good karma. He's got the best engine shop in the business with Hendrick Motorsports. He's also going to read about all the reasons why he shouldn't be able to win a title this year. That will make him more determined than ever.
He's going to be out to prove he's still among NASCAR's elite when he steps lines for the Budweiser Shootout Thursday night and the Daytona 500 Sunday afternoon. It would be a major surprise if Stewart is not in the new 16-driver Chase format when the last 10 races of the season begin. But really, it will be no surprise if is he's one of the four drivers going for the title in Homestead on Nov. 16.

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