NASCAR: Stewart bounces back
By Jenna Fryer
CHARLOTTE ó Tony Stewart is leaving his team at the end of the season, has been bickering with his crew chief and is stuck in a 41-race winless streak.
Regardless, it’s way too early to count Stewart out of the title hunt.
Sure, he made a pair of mistakes in the opening round of the Chase for the championship. But based on how he and his Joe Gibbs Racing crew rebounded, a third Cup title isn’t out of the question.
He’s not changing anything over these final nine weeks of the season, his last with JGR before he leaves to take over Stewart-Haas Racing.
“My approach to the Chase is the same way it’s been any other time I’ve been in a point race ó you go out there, you lead laps, you try to win races and the points take care of itself,” he said. “I know that sounds like a simple formula, but the reason we got to this point is by following that theory.
“Every week we go out and we try to lead laps and we try to win races. That’s what got us here. There’s no reason to change that. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel.”
Yet many have questioned Stewart’s focus as he wraps up his 10-year career with Gibbs and crew chief Greg Zipadelli. Putting the pieces together on his new team is a full-time job that requires a ton of attention.
“What he’s going to do is very, very difficult. End of story,” said veteran driver Jeff Burton. “How they structure that team and the way they go about building that business around Tony will have a great deal to do with how successful Tony can be.
“Tony can’t be everything. Nobody can.”
Add in that Stewart is stuck in the longest losing streak of his Cup career, and had several heartbreaking defeats this season beginning with a last-lap pass that cost him the Daytona 500. And when a sub-par pit stop cost him the lead late in a race at Richmond two weeks ago, he criticized Zipadelli and his crew following his fourth runner-up finish of the season.
The audio was captured by ESPN and replayed all of last week, creating a perceived schism between the driver and the only Cup crew chief he’s ever had.
Stewart downplayed the incident, arguing overheard conversation was two passionate competitors frustrated by another near-miss. Still, questions lingered about whether the two could survive this final stretch of season.
The two silenced all that doubt Sunday in New Hampshire.
It was clear early Zipadelli gave Stewart a car capable of winning the race, and Stewart offered a prerace pep talk encouraging his team to go for the win that eluded them at the same track in July. Stewart led a race-high 132 laps that day, but finished 13th when he gave up track position on a pit stop and it backfired when rain prevented NASCAR from finishing the entire event.
So Stewart wasted no time driving to the front on Sunday, where he ran among the top three until a pit-road miscue on lap 85. Exiting his pit stall, Stewart clipped the rear corner of Johnny Sauter’s car, and the contact forced him to make a second stop for a quick repair.
It dropped him to 36th in the field ó far enough back for the entire team to maybe call it a day.
Instead, he worked through traffic and was up to 21st when he headed in for another pit stop. This time, NASCAR flagged him for speeding back onto the track. The penalty dropped him back to 30th, one lap down and again in position to coast home with a sub-par finish.
But there was never any talk of that on the radio, as Stewart apologized to his crew for his errors and Zipadelli coaxed him to salvage the day.
They did, finishing eighth to move up one spot in the Chase standings to seventh. He trails co-leaders Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson by 73 points headed into this weekend’s race in Dover, Del.
“I’m real proud of the guys,” Stewart said. “They got us track position and an opportunity to get back on the lead lap with the ‘lucky dog,’ and that was because of the guys’ great pit stop before that.
“I got a drive-through penalty that got us way behind. We had some bad luck and then I made our problem worse with the speeding penalty. To fight back to eighth ó I’m pretty happy with that.”