Judging from his thrilling, last-lap victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, it looks like Tony Stewart is back on his game.
Now that I’ve said that, I wonder if he was ever really “off” his game.
Maybe he was a bit or maybe he just appeared to be.
Stewart has earned a reputation as a Sprint Cup driver who heats up when the weather does.
It seems for most his career Stewart has gathered most of his victories during the second half of a season.
Remember 2011? By the time the 26th race of the season at Richmond rolled around, Stewart was winless and barely holding on to a spot among the top 10 in points.
He wasn’t happy. He groused that, “This team doesn’t deserve to be in the Chase.”
But in the 10-race Chase, which began after Richmond, Stewart ripped off five victories to win the championship by a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.
From September through November, Stewart won half of the scheduled 10 races. Talk about a late bloomer. His reputation for winning during the second half of a season was enhanced.
This year things began quite differently for Stewart.
He won two of the first five races of the season, at Las Vegas and Fontana, and rose to as high as third place in the standings.
He didn’t wait around until the weather warmed up to start winning. For him, it was the “Merry Month of March,” not May.
But afterward, Stewart’s hot start cooled down. He finished outside the top 20 five times in 10 races following his Fontana victory.
He experienced a rash of engine problems relating to the new electronic fuel injection system. It seemed he suffered more EFI woes than any other driver.
But he also had five finishes among the top five following his win at Fontana. Most important, he managed to remain among the top 10 in the standings, holding on to No. 9 as the season rolled into Daytona.
After five months perhaps many of us thought Stewart had peaked early.
But it’s hot in July in Daytona – and when it’s hot it is time to pay close attention to Stewart.
His Daytona win was his third of the season, which ties him with Brad Keselowski for the most this year. Stewart is all but assured a place in the Chase lineup.
“I think every time we come here, the field is more competitive,” Stewart said at Daytona. “And it’s proven by how many guys have a shot to win the race.
“Guys that you won’t see up front next week were guys that you saw at some point that were in the top 10 tonight.”
Like Stewart, perhaps.
“It shows how good a job everybody does at the restrictor plate tracks,” Stewart added. “And it is proof that everybody has a shot to win these things and to run in the top five when they get here.
“It’s just a matter of getting that luck on your side and being at the right place at the right time and having that opportunity.”
Stewart knows what he’s talking about. On the last lap of the Coke Zero 400, Stewart was on the high side of leader Matt Kenseth and teammate Greg Biffle.
The Roush Fenway guys had proven to be a formidable combination throughout the race. Kenseth, in fact, led 89 laps, more than any other driver. Biffle led 35.
Stewart got a tremendous shove from Kasey Kahne on the final circuit and that allowed Stewart to eke out the victory.
He had luck on his side, was at the right place at the right time and had an opportunity – as he told us.
“I knew I had a good car behind me with Kasey Kahne, obviously,” Stewart said. “Knowing that those two guys were going to be teamed up with each other on the bottom, I was surprised we got as good a restart as we did.
“Kasey did a great job of getting hooked on the bumper right away, and it seemed like we actually held our own and actually we were better on the outside than those two cars were.”
Stewart said that he and crew chief Steve Addington have had to make adjustments this season due to racing circumstances – engine problems, for example – but now all that’s left is take it as it comes.
“I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing and the Hendrick engine and chassis department,” Stewart said. “I’m really pleased with the first half the season. Yes, there were some races that we lost some opportunities on, but I think there were races that we capitalized on that we haven’t been able to in the past.
“I think on the average, we’re really looking good right now. Again, I’m proud of the effort with everybody. On the average, I feel like we’re making gains.
If Stewart thinks his team is making gains, perhaps all should take heed.
After all the weather is still hot. And it’s going to remain that way for quite some time.