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Previews, predictions and stats for Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team
In 14 seasons in NASCAR’s elite division, Tony Stewart has earned a few adjectives: brilliant, talented, hotheaded, difficult. But perhaps the one descriptor that has dogged him the most is “streaky.”
Stewart has often been plagued by inconsistency — he’s either red hot, like he was during his five-win 2011 championship Chase, or lukewarm, like last year’s edition when he finished on the lead lap only four times in the Chase. That inconsistency has made it exceedingly frustrating to predict how Stewart will fare in any given year. Will we see the vicious competitor who goes out and takes a title race by storm, or the one who can’t quite put together the finishes to get there?
That’s again the question as Stewart heads into 2013, and this year the three-time champ is facing an additional wrinkle: The Hendrick Motorsports equipment that was one major weapon in his arsenal has lost a bit of its luster. It’s still among the best in the garage, no doubt, but it’s no longer alone at the top of the heap, as it lost out on a Cup title for the first time since 2005. In another era, Stewart could probably beat half the field on any given Sunday driving a 1984 Yugo. But in a world of engineers and aerodynamics, a step behind at the wind tunnel means two steps behind on-track. Hendrick may have a leg up on the 2013 car, which could be helpful, but as its number of suppliers increases and it shores up weaknesses within the organization, Stewart may lose out.
On the plus side is the fact that the No. 14 team returns virtually intact. Stewart now has a year of working with crew chief Steve Addington under his belt, and the pair had three wins, so as their relationship blooms, they’ll only get more dangerous. Addington has plenty of experience with volatile drivers. Before moving to Stewart’s pit box, he called the shots for Kurt and Kyle Busch. His ability to get the best out of angry, frustrated, yet talented wheelmen might just be his biggest asset. Addington knows that a team can’t win if it allows emotions to override logic, and he gets good information during the heat of battle. That’s no small thing for any team, and it’s critical for one with a temperamental owner/driver like Stewart in charge.
Unfortunately for Addington, he’ll have a bigger challenge than ever in keeping his partner in crime focused. Sponsorship for the No. 14 became a sudden concern in September, once longtime backer Office Depot opted to leave the sport. Paying the bills in its place is Bass Pro Shops (18 races), moving over from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, while co-primary backer Mobil 1 signed up for 11 events. That means Stewart the Marketer has nine races to fill, a lofty proposition that may mean funneling money from Ryan Newman’s backers, chassis/engine supplier Hendrick or outside investors. And then, there’s the overwhelming responsibility of Stewart the Manager, a contestant trying to win every prize on “Let’s Make A Deal.” Behind Door No. 1, you have Danica Patrick and all the media scrutiny and pressure that come with her moving up full-time in SHR’s No. 10 car. Door No. 2 finds a possible fourth team, being built for Kevin Harvick by the start of the 2014 season that will demand A-plus quality (though Harvick could simply slide into Newman’s current ride). And that’s not to mention the overwhelming responsibility of running Eldora, the Ohio-based dirt track that will host the first major sanctioned NASCAR race on dirt since 1970 in mid-July.
With that type of list, a year’s worth of Ritalin may not keep Stewart focused. Could all the distractions facing the mellowing 41-year-old explain why Stewart has been a bit less aggressive on-track, claiming that Brad Keselowski had a “death wish” at Texas despite being the man who would have pulled those edgy moves on Jimmie Johnson a few short years ago? Stewart’s continued professional success necessitates a greater level of responsibility, and the momentum Stewart needs to build goes far beyond his No. 14 car.
Does that mean Stewart can still surprise us with a fourth title in 2013? Well, yes. Few expected him to contend in 2011 before the Chase started. But for a streaky Stewart, a repeat of 2012 is more likely. After all, winning a title on-track gets more difficult when you’re overwhelmed off it.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
No one is at a loss for words when the subject turns to Tony Stewart, least of all his competitors:
“What more is there to say about Tony? He is probably the most talented driver in our series now and has been for some time,” one crew chief says. “Anyone that can jump from an open wheel to a stock car to a winged sprint or anything that he gets in … I would say he would be the No. 1 driver on any list for any driver in any series at any time of the day in any state or anywhere you chose to go. He is probably the most talented guy in the Cup garage right now.”
Another notes that every driver, even the greats, have weaknesses, and if Stewart’s life away from the track were as settled as it is when he’s behind the wheel, he would be even more dangerous — an acknowledgement of Stewart’s “dead weight” comment in his championship season of 2011.
“Tony is, I don’t know how old he is, 40? If he’s a 40-year-old, he’s a 40-year-old in a 14-year-old’s body just running wild and crazy. He just hasn’t found that happy place yet. He does really good (competitively) when he’s ‘on,’ but when things are wrong outside, then Tony is wrong on the inside. If he could ever find that happy place and keep him on his game he’d be unstoppable.”
Looking at Checkers: There is an extensive list, topped by Chicago, Indy and Loudon.
Pretty Solid Pick: Auto Club, Pocono, Sonoma … there are honestly very few tracks where he isn’t a solid pick.
Good Sleeper Pick: He has only one win at Talladega, but he consistently finds himself in the top 10. That is, if he can make it out of Turn 4 with all the wheels on the ground.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Since his lone Bristol win in 2001, Stewart has only three top-5 showings in East Tennessee.
Insider Tip: Stewart has a remarkable 14-year Cup record. In that time he’s won multiple races each season except for one — 2008, when he was a lame duck at JGR. That said, he still battles bouts of streakiness.
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