Where There's Smoke...
We all knew this day would come, didn't we? The day when three-time Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart quit sputtering around the track in 20-something place and won a race.
This is a driver that won five of the 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup races on his way to the 2011 championship. He approaches the sport with a move-or-be-moved, winning's-the-only-thing attitude, and the first dozen races of the season were uncharacteristic and unacceptable.
On a weekly basis, I would say in the Granite Stripe Podcast that I figured he'd snap out of his slump, one that saw him finish no better than 15th in eight consecutive races, and reel off a couple of wins. I had assumed that he would use the recently-implemented Wild Card status to work his way into the Chase from outside the top 10 in standings. But, my patience had been wearing thin.
At some point in that string of below average finishes, even I had to admit that something was wrong. Before a seventh-place finish and six laps led a week ago at Charlotte, Stewart had recorded just one top-10 (the second race of the season at Phoenix) and led just 18 laps (all in the fifth race of the season at Auto Club Speedway).
It was one thing to face bad luck, as had been common place for Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman. It was another thing to simply go drive in circles like a lap-car that hoped to catch enough Lucky Dogs to be on the lead lap when the race ended.
From a 22nd-place finish at Auto Club on March 24 to a 15th at Darlington on May 11, Stewart averaged a 20.1 average finish in seven races. Six of those he finished either on the lead lap or a single-lap down, and he completed all but seven laps in total.
That's not bad luck. That's just bad, period.
Things changed slowly for the No. 14. The respectable performance at Charlotte was at least enough to point the team in the right direction, and it capitalized this past Sunday at Dover International Speedway.
A slew of stronger looking cars were eliminated from the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks for one reason or another. Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. had their engines blow up. Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin both hit the wall on their own accord (it was speculated that both had tires go down). Jimmie Johnson saw a late black flag wave for jumping a restart. All appeared to have better cars than Stewart for most of the day, but a driver is judged by how he finishes, not by how he starts.
The No. 14 had worked his way up from 22nd at the start the day and began the final restart near the front of the field. When Johnson was forced down pit road by the black flag, Smoke found himself in second-place behind Juan Pablo Montoya.
It was the second time in the last five races that the No. 42 was leading a race with 10 laps to go. Montoya has never won on an oval in his career and should have won at Richmond a month ago, if not for a late caution flag after which Kevin Harvick ran away with the victory.
On Sunday, it was Stewart that spurned Montoya's opportunity. The final green flag segment ran 19 laps and the No. 14 seemed to come into its own during that stretch and closed fast on the No. 42 as the laps counted down.
By holding his inside line, Montoya forced Stewart to make a difficult pass on the high side. The move took the better part of a lap, but by the time the two emerged from Turn 4 and got the sign for two to go, Smoke had taken the lead.
Stewart pulled away to lead the final three laps and show off his nickname with an impressive (and long-awaited) burnout that sent smoke down the front stretch of the Monster Mile. The victory snapped a 30-race winless streak for the No. 14 team. After winning the July race at Daytona in 2012, the team became stagnant in its title defense and started this season with the same lackluster mediocrity.
The Wild Card setup gives a Chase berth to the drivers with the most wins that are ranked between 11-20 in the standings. Based on that design, Stewart immediately jumped from a distant nobody to a Chase driver.
He sat outside the top 20 following a 31st-place finish at Bristol on March 17 and had stayed outside until his top-10 in the Coca-Cola 600 a week ago, when he jumped up to the precarious 20th position. That still did him no good until the win this week.
All of sudden, he's gone from being the seventh driver out of the Chase to the first Wild Card in. The result of which proves just how effective the Wild Card can be in rewarding wins.
Of course, Stewart is not safely in the Chase, as other drivers can do the same as he's done. However, Smoke is notorious for scorching his way through the summer months. If Sunday is any indication, the No. 14 team is going to heat up with the weather and help Stewart make his seventh consecutive Chase.
After what he did in the 2011 season, a determined Stewart with something to prove is a very scary proposition to the drivers that have been working all season to define themselves as front runners for this year's championship.