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Stewart's position closely mirrors that of year ago

August 31, 2012, David Caraviello,

No. 14 team is comfortable with uncertainty as race for Chase weighs on field

Tony Stewart has the competition right where he wants them.

At least it would appear that way, given how closely the reigning Sprint Cup champion's current state mirrors that of a year ago. Last season at this time, Stewart had just come off a 28th-place finish at Bristol that knocked him to 10th in points heading to Atlanta Motor Speedway. Now, he's coming off a 27th-place showing at the Tennessee short track, and once again is barely holding on to that last guaranteed Chase position entering the Labor Day weekend event in the Peach State.

"It was worse last year because we hadn't won a race all season. So to go that long without a win was pretty heartbreaking up to that point. But I think this year, we know we've got races ..."


And yet, there are no proclamations of how the No. 14 team doesn't deserve a Chase spot, as there were last year. There are no indications that Stewart is thinking about firing his crew chief. With three victories to his credit and the memory of his 2011 championship run still fresh in his mind, this time around Stewart appears a little more content in his position -- even if it appears almost identical to where he was a season ago.

"We've at least ran well," he said this week at a sponsor event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "And I think last year we ran well at some tracks and couldn't capitalize on it.

"It was worse last year because we hadn't won a race all season. If it wasn't the longest drought we'd had, it was close to it. So to go that long without a win was pretty heartbreaking up to that point. But I think this year, we know we've got races -- Atlanta we're looking forward to, Richmond we're looking forward to after the spring race. So we've got two really good tracks coming up before the Chase, so I think it's a lot different feeling than it was last year at this time."

Last year at this time Stewart was in the midst of what would become a 32-race winless skid, which ended in a big way when he claimed a record five out of 10 Chase events to edge Carl Edwards for the championship in a tiebreaker. This season he's won three times -- most recently at Daytona in July -- and is tied with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski for most victories in the series. Unlike 2011, he figures to be one of the top seeds in the Chase -- if he can hold on to his current top-10 standing in points.

Right now that seems precarious, given that Stewart hasn't finished better than 19th in his last three races. Leaving Bristol, his edge over 11th-place Kasey Kahne had been whittled down to 16 points. Once again there are similarities to a year ago at this time, when he held a 21-point edge over 11th-place Brad Keselowski. Although Stewart seems guaranteed at least a wild-card berth (though he has not technically clinched anything), should he start the Chase outside the top 10 he would lose the bonus points he's earned by virtue of his race victories.

"We're still going to be in," said Stewart, a three-time Atlanta winner who finished third at Richmond in the spring. "It won't be advantageous to drop out of the top 10, but we didn't have those bonus points last year and we were able to come back. It would be nice to have them, though. I think it would be nine points we'd have if we'd stay in the top 10, so we're going to do everything we can to keep those."

And, as last year showed, every point can matter. That championship campaign didn't come without a cost, though -- during a low point in the middle of the Chase, Stewart fired former crew chief Darian Grubb effective at the end of the season, a decision that stood even after the No. 14 team won the title. Grubb is now calling the shots for Hamlin, who won last week at Bristol. On the box this year for Stewart has been Steve Addington, with whom the driver worked during their days together at Joe Gibbs Racing.

"There are things Steve's been able to bring to the table that have helped us in spots where we were really weak last year, and I think there are parts of it this year that we've missed on, a couple of opportunities," Stewart said. "He's still learning a different system, he's still learning different guys, and the engineering side of it.

"He's got a whole new group of people than what he's used to working with. That's probably been the biggest thing he's had to adapt to, more than what we do at the track each weekend. I think it's more the stuff during the week that he's had to learn how we've done it and how to apply what he knows and work it into the system."

The three victories, though, have made those transitional struggles easier to stomach. Just as Stewart's dramatic turnaround from a year ago helps him keep his perspective as he once again weathers tough times on the brink of the Chase.

"I think it was a good lesson for everybody," he said. "This sport, the technology changes so fast. And it wasn't like something just came into our organization and turned it around. But it's proof that you can be in a slump and it can turn around literally in a week. I think from that side, it gives anybody who's going to be in the Chase -- no matter how good or bad they're running -- it gives them that example that it can be done wherever you're at. No matter how good or bad you've been running, you can get there from there."