Will the real Tony Stewart please stand up? In one corner, there’s the three-time Cup champion and certain Hall of Fame driver. In the other, there’s the guy who went winless for the first time in his career, en route to a nightmare no one could have ever imagined.
Which one will emerge in 2015?
Stewart’s 2014 season will forever be defined by a sprint car race that took place outside the insular world of NASCAR, a race where Stewart struck and killed a fellow competitor, Kevin Ward Jr., who got out of his car to confront him after a spin. Stewart was later cleared of any charges by a grand jury, but the damage wasn’t merely legal, as the events surrounding the accident clearly took an emotional toll on the driver.
Long before that fateful night, though, Stewart was struggling. He missed the last 15 races in 2013 after breaking his leg in a sprint car race and didn’t return until Daytona. That injury and subsequent surgeries presented a difficult obstacle for Stewart as he missed two offseason tests. He also had a new crew chief in Chad Johnston, new teammates in Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch and a new NASCAR rules package to handle. The team had fast cars, but the deck was stacked against him, and poor preparation left him three steps behind out of the gate.
So why should 2015 be any different? Stewart, recovering through his focus on racing, will come into the season as prepared as anyone. Teams won’t have the opportunity to test a new rules package in the offseason, putting them all on an even playing field. His equipment is excellent; the cars are prepared for the Stewart-Haas Racing drivers in-house, so they’re tailor-made to suit their driver/owner. Yes, there’s the question mark of offseason surgery on the leg he injured in 2013, but a spokesman called it “routine maintenance,” and the procedure was performed in early December, plenty early for Stewart to recover.
Johnston is still a bit of a wild card on top of the pit box. He had one win in three seasons with Michael Waltrip Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. and came to SHR with fellow MWR crew chief Rodney Childers, giving the two a leg up on working together. On the other hand, Stewart didn’t perform well with Johnston last year. This season will be the real test.
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Stewart’s sponsorship situation is solid, with backers Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1, Rush Truck Centers and Code 3 Associates set to return. His equipment will be the best available, and it’s equipment that’s taken eight of the last nine titles, including two of those by SHR.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to expect a rebound is Stewart himself. Despite that career-worst 2014 season, he’s still a three-time champion with 48 wins to his name, a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame and one of the best drivers of his era. Despite the setbacks, Stewart still has the talent and drive to win races and put his name in the hat for the title.
Falling star Stewart’s No. 14 team finished 29th and 25th in points in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Though injury and incident were responsible for some of that, the 43-year-old Stewart has showed signs of decline. The biggest is his inability to pass at the quad-ovals on which he has earned seven of his 48 career victories. He scored a below-par adjusted pass efficiency of 45.68 percent at the fast intermediates in 2014.
Not the leader Stewart hasn’t led more than 1,000 laps in a season since 2006. In 2013 and 2014 he led 114 and 125, respectively.
Chasing his unicorn One of the sport’s most talented drivers has yet to win at Darlington, one of its most unique tracks, but he’s been solid there in recent outings. Stewart finished in the top 10 in five of his last eight Darlington attempts.
No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1, Rush Truck Centers, Code 3 Associates
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas
Crew Chief: Chad Johnston
Year With Current Team: 7th
Under Contract Through: Lifetime
Best Points Finish: 1st (2002, ’05, ’11)
Hometown: Columbus, Ind.
Born: May 20, 1971
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.