It was three weeks ago that Tony Stewart, winless for the season and in danger of not qualifying for the Chase, told us he believed his Stewart-Haas team wasn’t good enough to participate in NASCAR’s “playoff.”
He used words like “struggling” and “miserable” and was understandably surly when asked why he hadn’t won and what would he have to do in order to finally achieve victory.
I daresay any of us would be surly, too, if we were asked the same question week after week.
But now in the Chase, which will determine NASCAR’s Sprint Cup champion, so far we’ve seen such a dramatic change in Stewart’s performance level it’s hard to imagine he’s racing with the same team – you know, the one that was “struggling” and “miserable.”
With his victory in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Stewart has now won the first two of the 10 races that make up the Chase.
He has risen to No. 1 in the point standings in his bid to win a third career title. When the Chase began after Richmond two weeks ago, Stewart was in ninth place, 12 points behind first-place Kyle Busch in the reconfigured standings.
I don’t think anyone thought Stewart could make such a turnaround. Fact is, he wasn’t mentioned in most championship predictions. He was a non-entity – which, incidentally, he may have also thought of himself.
He’s hardly that now.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Stewart said after his victory, achieved when Clint Bowyer ran out of gas with two laps remaining in yet another fuel-mileage race. “The last four weeks have been awesome. So this is the best scenario we can have going into Dover.
“Our guys are pumped up and I am proud of Darian (Grubb, crew chief) and these guys. They never give up. So we are going to keep digging for these next eight weeks.”
Which is exactly what Stewart and his team should do. They have a real opportunity now – just a couple of weeks after nearly everyone else thought they would not.
What has brought about Stewart’s turnaround? It’s not likely that it is any one thing other than the result of a dedicated effort to improve by whatever means possible.
It might have snuck up on a lot of us, but that improvement was obvious over the four weeks of which Stewart spoke.
He was ninth at Michigan and then 28th at Bristol during his efforts to win a race and make the Chase.
Then another ninth-place run at Richmond assured him a berth in the “playoff.” It was followed by his first victory of the season, at Chicagoland where he vaulted to second in points, just eight points behind Kevin Harvick.
Now comes the win at New Hampshire. It means that in the last five races, Stewart has four top-10 finishes, including two victories.
The driver from Columbus, Ind., has always been known to get hot competitively in the second half of a season, but seldom, if ever, has that occurred as late as it has in 2011.
And, during the first part of the year, Stewart dropped to as low as 12th in points when he had a five-race string of finishes no higher that 12th and as low as 34th.
Now, however, Stewart and his team have reached Nirvana – and, it might be added, at just the right time.
Stewart stressed that misfortunes have contributed to the negative results he and his team have experienced.
But, he added, they found a way to overcome that.
“The one thing I think our organization is really good at is taking what we’re doing day-to-day,” Stewart said. “I mean, we don’t lose sight of where we’re at today, worrying about two weeks down the road.
“We focus one day at a time. Obviously, stuff like the chassis that we’re going to run through the end of the year, Darian has those planned out, but we really just focus on the day that we’re on, what we can do to make the most of that day.”
Stewart also said that racing, NASCAR style, changes week-to-week. He’s proof of that.
He also knows it can change for the worse – and quickly.
“I wish I could say you could predict it,” Stewart said. “I wish you could see it coming in the future. The hard thing is, as much as it turned for us, you never know what’s going to happen. We hope the next eight weeks go this way.
“The reality of it is you look at guys that are in the back half of the Chase right now, they’re guys that a lot of people expected to be in the top five, top three in the points right now. It shows that one or two bad days can put you in a bad spot pretty quick.
“As much as we want to sit here and beat our chest and be proud of what we’ve done, and we are proud of what we’ve done these first two weeks, we got eight hard weeks to go.”
He’s right, of course.
And in those eight weeks, there’s plenty of opportunity for scenarios to change.
For example, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished 18th after a mediocre day and bumping incidents with Kyle Busch at New Hampshire, has time to rise from 10th in points – his worst position ever in the Chase – and claim yet another title.
The road could be wider and easier for Harvick, 12th at New Hampshire, and Brad Keselowski, the runnerup, who rank second and third, respectively, in points and are within 11 of Stewart.
In fact, there is a chance any driver currently among the top 12 in points to win the title.
OK, maybe Denny Hamlin, who is 12th in points and having a dreadful season when compared to 2010, doesn’t have much of chance.
Still, any one of them can do what Stewart has done in the Chase’s first two races.
Stewart did it when he needed it most.
It seems likely that when he talks about his team over the next eight weeks we won’t hear the words “struggling” and “miserable.”