This sort of thing is known as a “slump.” We’ve all heard of it and many of us have experienced our own personal agony when our favorite athlete or team goes through one.
Some “slumps” last much longer than others. Chicago Cubs fans have been suffering for years.
On the other hand, some athletes and teams are so successful for so long that for them to experience any adversity for any length of time is highly unusual.
It’s seldom expected – if ever. Teams like the New York Yankees and the New England Patriots seem to display excellence year after year.
Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they always will. Sooner or later, for any number of reasons, their bleak competitive days will come. Ask Tiger Woods.
Certainly this is all true in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. Over the years there have been countless drivers and teams that have enjoyed success for many seasons. Yet they, too, have fallen into adversity from time to time.
It’s happened to the best of drivers – Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt – heck, just about all of them.
Well, OK, maybe Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team haven’t fallen into anything adversarial for the last several years. But, as hard as this may be to believe, they will – in time.
To me the definition of a “slump” in NASCAR is up for interpretation.
There are drivers and teams that have reasonably good season records. In fact, they are the envy of others that would be pleased if they could match their performance level.
However, they are still “slumping” because they are not performing at their usual high level; they are not meeting the expectations of their peers, the fans and the media.
Their established reputations indicate that they should be better than they are – whatever that may be.
This season, a couple of organizations come to mind, neither of which is at the expected performance level.
Stewart Haas Racing is, of course, identified by one of its drivers and its co-owner, Tony Stewart.
Stewart is a two-time Cup champion. He first won the title in 2002 while with Joe Gibbs Racing and earned his second in 2005, when he ranked No. 1 in points going into the Chase and then won five of seven races.
He has won a race in every season since 1999, his first with Gibbs. He won six in 2000 and five each in 2005-06. He’s been out of the top 10 in points only once, in ’06, when he was 11th.
The 2011 season could go down as Stewart’s worst. He clings to 10th-place in points, which would get him into the Chase, but has yet to win.
Through 24 races this year, Stewart has only two top-five and nine top-10 finishes. He has an average start of 18.8 and an average finish of 15.0.
For Stewart fans – and those accustomed to seeing him race with much higher proficiency – his performance at Bristol last week was disheartening.
He was never higher than 28th place and finished three laps down, not because his Chevrolet had problems, it was just too slow.
Stewart’s grip on 10th place in the points is tenuous, so much so that it’s likely he’s going to have to rely on a victory or misfortune for others to make the Chase.
There are two races remaining before the Chase begins and, make no mistake, Stewart can win either one of them, or both.
He won’t if he has another race like Bristol.
Let’s be clear about one thing – the Chase is not the end of the season. It’s the start of another.
NASCAR’s “playoff” consists of 10 races, which will be the number of opportunities Stewart will have to avoid the first winless season of his career.
By the way, Stewart knows all of this – no need to mention it to him. He’s not afraid to make changes should he deem them necessary. And to be a driver/owner always increases responsibility, which sometimes can be a competitive distraction.
I don’t think any fan has to be told the quality of Richard Childress Racing, a multi-car team that has consistently been one of NASCAR’s finest organizations.
Last year, RCR was in contention for the championship as all three of its teams made the Chase. Driver Kevin Harvick led the standings for most of the season, although he lapsed at year’s end.
He did win three times. Teammate Clint Bowyer won twice. Harvick finished third in points, Bowyer 10th and Jeff Burton, the only winless RCR driver in 2010, 12th.
RCR was expected to challenge Johnson and Hendrick for this season’s title.
It still can, but it’s all up to one driver – Harvick. He’s the only Childress competitor who is assured a place in the Chase. He is fifth in points and has three wins, all achieved before the halfway point of the season.
Otherwise, the RCR situation is unexpectedly dismal. Bowyer is 12th in points with no wins, three top-fives and nine top-10s on the season. He has a chance to make the Chase but it’s about as good as that proverbial snowball’s in that hot place.
Paul Menard, the newcomer at RCR, enjoyed a popular victory in the Brickyard 400 and for a time was a “wildcard” candidate for the Chase.
He still is, but given he is 20th in points and thus the last driver eligible, he’s going to have to win a second race – and stay in the top 20 – to make it.
Burton, meanwhile, has had a very atypical season. He is winless, has just one finish among the top 10 and ranks 24th in points, with no chance to make the Chase.
Where RCR was once considered a title threat based on its performance in 2010, its hopes are now pinned on only one of its teams – not three or even four as many expected.
There are other teams that certainly could be described as in “slumps” or underachieving. There’s no doubt about that.
And there are many organizations that would relish being among the top 10, as are Stewart and Childress.
But achieving victory should restore much of their luster. And there are 12 opportunities to do just that.