Tony Stewart and his Stewart- Haas Racing organization that also fields teams for Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick has not gotten off to the kind of start you would expect from an organization that won the Sprint Cup championship in 2011. Going into Sunday’s race at Dover, the three teams had combined for only one top-five finish.
Stewart was able to double that total when he posted his first win of the season in the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks by taking advantage of a rare mistake on a restart by Jimmie Johnson. Johnson was black flagged for jumping the restart as he passed leader Juan Pablo Montoya and was leading before he got to the start/finish line. He said later that he tried to give Montoya a chance to get the lead back, but that he never caught up so he continued on his way.
Until Sunday, Stewart and his teammates had struggled to find the speed and handling in the new Gen-6 car to compete for a win, and their struggles reflect where they are in the point standings. Stewart leads the trio in 16th but finds himself 33 points out of the top 10 that after 26 races automatically earns a spot in the Chase. Even though he is outside of the top 10 with its automatic slot in the Chase, Stewart is leading the rest of the field for one of the two wild card spots awarded for the two drivers outside of the top 10 but inside the top 20 that have posted the most wins after the completion of the first 26 races of the season.
Stewart and David Ragan are the only two drivers outside of the top 10 at this time that have posted wins, but Ragan would not get in the Chase at this time as he sits outside the top 20 in 27th. While Ragan does have a win going for him in his attempt to make the Chase, Stewart’s teammates Newman and Patrick might be so many points out of the top 10 at this time that their only chance of making it into the championship round is by making some trips to victory lane.
Even if both drivers are able to turn their seasons around by posting some wins, they must finish in the top 20 to be Chase eligible. Newman now sits 20th in the points, but is 52 points from 10th which may be too much of a deficit to make up before the September Richmond race that is the final race before the Chase field is set.
Patrick, in her rookie year in the series, has struggled nearly every week since her stellar start of the season at Daytona. She surprised everyone by sitting on the pole for the Daytona 500 and was actually in a position to win during the final laps of the race. Since that time she has struggled just to finish on the lead lap and now finds herself 140 points out of the 10th position in 29th.
Stewart is one of the most competitive drivers in the series and by wearing the owner/driver hat he knows what making the Chase can do for his organization. Making the Chase gives a driver and organization the opportunity to take advantage of added media coverage given to the Chase teams. The added exposure can keep sponsors happy and possibly attract new sponsors.
Newman also knows that making the Chase is not only important to Stewart-Haas, but extremely important to the future of his career as he is in the last year of his contract with the organization. Kevin Harvick has already announced that he will be leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season and will be joining his buddy Stewart for the 2014 season. Rumors also have Harvick’s present sponsor Budweiser making the move with him for next season. All of this makes it highly unlikely that Newman will return next season.
Sunday’s win backs up Stewart’s seventh-place finish at Charlotte last week and could signal the beginning of his team turning their fortunes around. It would give the entire organization a much-needed shot in the arm as the sharing of information about what is working for Stewart’s team might be the jump start that both Newman and Patrick need to turn their seasons around too.
Event: Party in the Poconos 400 Track: Pocono Raceway (2.5 mile tri-oval, turn 1-140, turn 2-80, turn 3-60 of banking) Date: June 9, 1 p.m. TV: TNT Radio: MRN Defending Champ: Joey Logano