Through most of the first 11 races of the 2010 Sprint Cup season, Tony Stewart wondered where the magic had gone.
Stewart founded his own Stewart-Haas Racing organization a year earlier and surprisingly hit the ground running fast in his No. 14 Chevrolet, leading the point standings much of that season. Although he faded somewhat down the stretch in the 2009 season, he still finished a strong sixth in the final standings after visiting Victory Lane four times.
"We were struggling," he later said in a massive understatement. "We were confused. We thought some of what we learned the first year would carry over, but there are no guarantees in racing. Technology changes. Things change. We were missing on something, but we were confident that we'd find it."
Stewart began turning his season around a week later with a ninth-place finish at Dover. Although it would be nearly four more months before he finally found Victory Lane again, that began a streak of 12 races during which Stewart registered 10 finishes of ninth or better -- including five top-fives. When he finished sixth at Michigan in mid-August, suddenly Stewart, still winless, was all the way up to fourth in the point standings.
Two weeks later, he finally won again -- breaking a 31-race winless streak in dominating fashion at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He led 175 of 325 laps to claim his third career win at the 1.54-mile track, clinching a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup in the process.
"I've never been so happy to win a race in my life," he said that day. "I forgot what it's like, it's been so long. ... It seems like an eternity since we won a race."
It wouldn't take long for him to experience the feeling again, as he won again five weeks later at Auto Club Speedway in California. Unfortunately for Stewart, he struggled mightily during three of the four races in between -- including the first two Chase events at Loudon and Dover. That left him in a hole that was too difficult to climb out of completely over the final six races of the season.
He still appreciated his first victory at the California track, which was the 39th of his career in 422 starts. The only other tracks on the 2010 Cup schedule at which Stewart has yet to win are Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway.
"I'm glad to finally win one in California. I can now check it off the list of tracks I've never won at," Stewart said.
Had he not followed up the triumph at Auto Club Speedway with sub-par finishes of 21st at Charlotte, 24th at Martinsville and 31st at Talladega, he might have been in the mix at the end as he attempted to claim his third Cup championship. Instead, he needed to rally for an eighth-place effort in the season finale at Homestead just to move back up to seventh in the final standings.
"We really just dug ourselves too big a hole in the first two races of the Chase," Stewart said.
That sort of mirrored their entire year. In a season during which they had hoped to be leading the way out front, they spent too much of their time playing catch-up to the rest of the Sprint Cup field.
Stewart's crew chief, Darian Grubb, admitted that the No. 14 team fell behind badly at the beginning of the year. But he said he was proud that his driver and crew never gave up and continued to work hard, making smaller gains at first and larger ones as the season went on. He also said it gave them something to build on heading into next year, as the team actually finished the season on a stronger note in 2010 than it did after the fast start out of the Stewart-Haas gates in 2009.
"It's not like we weren't trying to get to Victory Lane every week," crew chief Darian Grubb said. "We learned a lot of things over the past few months that have given Tony more comfort in the race car and kept speed in it. The more we keep doing that, the more lessons we can learn that we now can apply to it."