The defending race-winner isn't letting early struggles get to him
There’s a difference, he said, between panic and concern.
Yes, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion acknowledged, he is concerned that he finds himself mired deep in the points after the season’s first four races.
But he’s not ready to strip his No. 14 team down to bare bones and start over. This isn’t the first rodeo for Stewart, now in his fifth year as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing. With the arrival of NASCAR’s Generation-6 car, it was inevitable, he said, that some teams would come out of the gate faster than others.
“We knew there were teams that would probably figure the (new) package out (and) teams that would struggle,” Stewart said March 20 during an appearance at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. “… It’s not that there’s no emphasis on catching up, that focus is already there … but we want to win races, too. We know we can get caught up; it's just a matter of going through the process.”
Stewart, 41, finished 41st at Daytona after he was caught up in an early accident; damage from a flat tire early last weekend at Bristol sent him to the garage for an extended period and left him 31st in the 43-car field. In between, he managed an eighth-place run at Phoenix and was 11th a week later at Las Vegas.
“I don’t care how many cautions you have,” he said of the Bristol setback, “you’re not going to get back on the lead lap from that.”
So the team made the repairs it could, sent its driver back out onto the track, and in large part due to attrition, saw him pick up a dozen spots by the end of the day.
"If you’re not concerned, you’re not doing your job."
--Tony Stewart on his early-season struggles
Teammates Ryan Newman (23rd in points) and rookie Danica Patrick (28th) have had their share of struggles this year as well. Playing catch-up, Stewart said, might mean leaning a bit more on Hendrick Motorsports, the organization that provides the cars and engines, as well as some engineering assistance.
“We’d be foolish not to at this point,” he said. “We’ve got a great working relationship with those guys. This is a time that it can come into play for us, for sure. … We have to do a little better job of taking that information and executing.”
Cup teams head west once again this weekend for the Auto Club 400, slated for March 24 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Stewart is the defending race winner and has won two of the last three Cup races at the 2-mile track.
“The good thing (about going back to ACS) is I know what my car needs to feel like to have a good day on Sunday,” Stewart said. “I know what it needs to feel like on Saturday to do that. The way we ran last year – we had an awesome, awesome race car. … It will be disappointing if we don’t run well there.”
With 22 races remaining before the field is set for this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, Stewart knows there’s plenty of time to get his program headed back in the right direction.
Concerned? Sure. But there’s no reason to panic.
“Are you concerned when you go home and your wife’s mad at you?” Stewart asks. “Do you panic? Same thing.
“If you’re not concerned, you’re not doing your job; if you panic, you’ve got just as much opportunity to go backward as you do forward.
“We’ve got a lot of races to get these points caught up.”
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