Team hopes for better qualifying to better results
Whenever he’s asked what his race team needs to fix to be more competitive, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart delivers a standard answer: “If I knew that, don’t you think I’d be doing it?”
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Usually Stewart is smirking or kidding, but by late in the 2012 season, the tone was more serious.
After one of the most remarkable championship runs in NASCAR history in 2011, Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy was less frequently a trophy threat in 2012. Despite a very respectable three wins, Stewart defended his title with a ninth place in the standings -- his worst showing since a ninth place in 2008. It marks only the third time in his 14-year Cup career he’s placed worse than seventh overall.
“A lot of places that we were so good at last year in the Chase, not being good this time and this year was a little disappointing,” Stewart said.
His five wins during the 2011 Chase were record-worthy, but since he changed crew chiefs for 2012, there was a bit of a reset during the get-to-know-you phase between Stewart and new hire Steve Addington.
Expectations quickly rose, however, when Stewart won two of the first five races -- including a first-time victory at Las Vegas. But as the months went on, that quick start to the season was tempered by inconsistency and, especially, poor qualifying. These are two of the team’s priorities for 2013.
Stewart started 20 races from 21st or farther back on the grid, forcing him to play a game of catch-up before the green flag even dropped. And still, Stewart’s 12 top-five finishes were more than the nine top-fives he posted in his 2011 championship season, and more than any season since 2006.
To salvage such good results despite poor starts should be encouraging, but Stewart has a low threshold for any weakness in the program. And that will be tested this year, as he and teammate Ryan Newman welcome a third car to the Stewart-Haas Racing, driven by rookie Danica Patrick.
“We’ve got such a different car and different package, everybody just kind of starts over,” Stewart said. “I am discouraged that we (finished 2012) this way, but not because of what it’s going to lead to next year.
“Everybody is going to start with stuff that is totally different, package-wise, than what we have. … There are a lot of changes and it’s going to be a whole new learning process starting over in Daytona.”
Stewart had not turned a lap in NASCAR’s new Generation-6 cars entering the new year, but he was impressed with the new look of his Chevrolet SS -- and the possibilities.
“Anytime you start with anything completely new, it’s an unknown variable,” Stewart said.
“You’ve got to establish a baseline first and the hardest thing is getting the cars built right now. We’ve got a lot of work to do in a short amount of time.
“Nobody knows who’s going to find the right combination with this new car. A lot can change during the course of the season and how teams will develop it."
See the full schedule of our top 12 Sprint Cup Series drivers and read more below:
11. Martin Truex Jr.
10. Jeff Gordon
9. Tony Stewart
7. Matt Kenseth
6. Denny Hamlin
5. Greg Biffle
4. Kasey Kahne
2. Clint Bowyer