2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Owner: Tony Stewart
Crew Chief: Darian Grubb
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: n/a
Best points finish: 1st (2002, ’05)
Hometown: Columbus, Ind.
Born: May 20, 1971
If championships define a driver, then Tony Stewart is a Renaissance man. His national titles span international go-karting, an elusive USAC Triple Crown, Indy Cars and two in the NASCAR Cup Series. Stewart’s as much at home in the Indianapolis 500 as the Brickyard 400, and he can still wheel a dirt late model at Eldora as well as many who do it for a living. Fittingly, he drives the No. 14 of his hero, A.J. Foyt — possibly the only other driver in North American motorsports whose résumé is so decorated — and does so proudly.
In short, Stewart is the most versatile driver in NASCAR. He is also one of the biggest talents the racing world has known in recent years, despite a letdown season in 2010 when he notched two victories but finished seventh in points and never seriously contended in the Chase. Entering the postseason hotter than any team, Stewart and Co. had one ugly fuel mileage decision in the Chase’s first event at Loudon that led to running out of gas approaching the white flag while leading, resulting in a missed opportunity for a team that never fully rebounded from the disappointing 24th-place showing.
But despite advancing age — the most recent Cup champion not named Jimmie Johnson turns 40 in 2011 — Stewart remains as poised as ever for a title bid. Stewart’s greatest asset remains his car control. He can save a car that most others would put in the fence, while finessing one to a better finish than should be possible. And while “Smoke” would like to think differently — at one point last June, the driver said, “For anybody that’s looking for drama, I’m going to make the highlight reel these next few weeks” — Stewart was noticeably absent from NASCAR’s “Boys, have at it” routine. He has matured in recent years, holding his tongue and temper — well, in America anyway — so that it rarely costs him on the racetrack.
With Hendrick chassis and engines, there’s no doubt that Stewart has the equipment to match any driver, any day. He might be getting a few horsepower less than the HMS fold, but he can make up for that with sheer ability. Crew chief Darian Grubb is a longtime Hendrick engineer and technically excellent. He’s won the Daytona 500 with Johnson, the Coca-Cola 600 with Casey Mears, and, since joining Stewart, has six more wins under his belt as well as an All-Star victory.
Sponsorship hasn’t come as easily for Stewart the team owner. Office Depot and Burger King return, but a search to replace Old Spice took four months before Mobil 1 was signed. While Stewart’s team is by no means underfunded, Mobil 1’s backing brought a sigh of relief.
With finances in order, Stewart must improve in two key areas to contend for a 2011 title — his team’s short track program and its performance in the Chase. Fourteen of Stewart’s 17 top 10s in 2010 came on tracks 1.5 miles or longer, while posting a disgusting average finish of 19.7 on those less than a mile. It’s a surprising statistic, considering the shorts are teammate Ryan Newman’s biggest strength. If the two compare notes, improvement is guaranteed, but Stewart — traditionally strongest in the summer — also needs to figure out how to keep the heat turned up in the fall. Though he has a Chase title, he hasn’t been as brilliant during the final 10 races of late, and when the competition comes to life in September, trailing off is no longer an option.
Stewart is an old school driver in a new school world, accomplishing things simply not done in recent memory. Alan Kulwicki was a champion admired for doing it his way and long remembered as the last independent owner/driver to win a title. While Stewart isn’t going it alone in quite the same fashion, he is bucking several trends — winning in his own cars while maintaining a throwback driving style and unique, if toned down, personality. In a vanilla world, Stewart is a habañero pepper. And he can bring the heat.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
What takes Stewart-Haas Racing to the next level? How does Stewart earn a third championship? “I’m wondering if Tony and his team can go any further,” says a crew chief. “For the long run, I question whether you can beat Hendrick Motorsports when you’re getting your cars and engines from them.”
Another crew chief scoffs at that notion: “That might be true if not for the fact that Tony has so many guys who know what they’re doing working for him. Stewart-Haas isn’t exactly a turn-key operation with Hendrick. They get good stuff from Hendrick and make it better.”
Another says, “Stewart has a lot in common with Dale Earnhardt (Sr.). The difference is I don’t think Tony has ever grown up. He’s made some progress, though, since he got his own team.”
Looking at Checkers: For as good as Stewart is across the board, he’s double platinum on the road courses.
Pretty Solid Pick: 18 top 10s (two wins) in 24 Pocono starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: Maybe if Rockingham were still around ...
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Still hasn’t won at Darlington, which is surprising.
Insider Tip: Up next on the bucket list is the Daytona 500. Smoke has three July wins on the beach, but hasn’t broken through in February. Expect him to pull out all the stops until that changes.
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 17
Laps Led: 537
Laps Completed: 10,738
Lead Lap Finishes: 27
Bonus Points: 110
Races Led: 20
Average Start: 13.2
Average Finish: 13.9
After First 26 Races: 7th
Final Points Standing: 7th
Driver Rating: 91.2 (9th)