By Jim Pedley
Special to Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
(May 13, 2010)
Tony Stewart was one of the biggest, most successful stories in NASCAR on race weekend at Dover International Speedway last spring.
Story-wise, he's a biggie again this year as he gets ready to take on the Monster Mile—but for the opposite reason. Stewart's season is in the toilet and there is a hand on the flush lever.
"We're kind of in a slump right now," Stewart said last week, and that was before a second consecutive finish of 23rd knocked him from 15th to 18th in points heading into Sunday's Autism Speaks 400 Sprint Cup Series race.
A year ago, Stewart was kind of on a high.
He was making the owner/driver thing look elementary. In his first season in that role for Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart arrived at Dover for the 13th race of the year with eight top-10 finishes, four podiums and he was second in series points.
He finished second that weekend and headed out of town with the points lead. He would keep that lead until the points standings were reset for the Chase.
Stewart would go on to win four times in 2009, make the Chase and end the season as the No. 6 driver in Cup.
For many, it was a given that Stewart would have similar success in 2010.
Except that he has not.
Stewart has one top-five finish this season—that, a runner-up job he got at Bristol seven races ago.
Six times in his 11 starts this year, he has finished 20th or worse.
It all seems kind of baffling—same championship-caliber driver, same crew chief in Darian Grubb, same Hendrick Motorsports support, but few signs of life.
"It's hard," Stewart said last week. "There's nothing easy about what we do. You're competing against 41 other guys each week and it's not always clear-cut what the right answer is and where the problem lies."
Perhaps the solution lies at Dover.
When Stewart stays out of trouble at the high-banked mile, he does well. Almost always. He has two victories there. Granted, both came 10 years ago when he swept the Monster Mile, but he also has 14 top 10s in 22 starts. His average finish is 11.5, and that goes even lower if you can throw out the three DNFs he's had there.
Stewart has led 1,072 laps at Dover, which is fourth-best among active full-time drivers.
The better news for Stewart is that his success is not all restricted to ancient history.
While his finishes have not been good in recent weeks, his cars have been fast. Stewart has led laps in each of the last five races. At Texas four weeks ago, he led 74 laps and appeared quite capable of winning before getting caught in a wreck.
"I've got my head up," Stewart said. "We're not proud of how we're running right now. We know we're better than that, but we're going to get it sorted out and get going again."
Like Bristol, site of Stewart's best finish this season, Dover features a concrete racing surface.
That's neither good nor bad. Just tricky, Stewart said.
"Because it is concrete, the track has a lot more bumps than an asphalt track would," he said. "There are seams in Dover's surface and places where they've cut the concrete for expansion. Those sections shift and change, and every year when you go there, the bumps are a little bit different than they were the year before. Dover is a track that's constantly changing. But it's one of those places where you really can't change your driving style."
What Stewart hopes is that the concrete surface at Dover allows him to really change his 2010 racing fortunes.