For winless Stewart, Daytona is a welcome sight
July 03, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live | Sign up for RaceView today
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series moves to Daytona International Speedway this week, and for Tony Stewart, the timing couldn't be any better.
Stewart, 43, is a four-time winner of the Coke Zero 400 at DIS and finished second in last year’s race.
He's also currently winless in his last 25 starts, having missed the final 15 of last season due to injury.
For a three-time Sprint Cup champion and winner of 48 races, the lack of appearances in Victory Lane this season has been perplexing.
Yes, he was out of the car for more than six months due to injury -- a broken right leg suffered in a sprint car accident -- and his Stewart-Haas Racing organization underwent major changes in the offseason.
Two drivers, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, were brought on board and a new team, the 41 of Busch, was built from the ground up.
Stewart's own No. 14 team didn't go untouched; a crew chief change put Chad Johnston atop the pit box for 2014. Johnston replaced Steve Addington, the replacement for earlier crew chief Darian Grubb, who crewed Stewart to his last title in '11.
The changes, and the fact that, historically, Stewart has been somewhat of a slow starter, might help explain his current 16th-place points position, but those are likely just part of the reason for his non-winner status.
Key changes have rarely kept Stewart out of the winner's circle.
When he left Joe Gibbs Racing to become co-owner of Stewart-Haas in 2009, Stewart didn't win until that season's 14th race; he won three more times that season.
In 2012, after Addington replaced Grubb as crew chief, Stewart won earlier than ever -- just three races into the year at Las Vegas. He won twice more before year's end.
Change happens and Stewart wins. Every year. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later.
Competing full-time since 1999, Stewart has gone 17 races into a season before winning six times, and he has yet to complete an entire season without at least one win.
Stewart isn't alone in needing a victory to solidify his chances at making this year's 16-team Chase field. There are others still searching for victory lane as well. But his current position doesn't offer much elbow room: two drivers with fewer points, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch, each have a win and would move ahead of Stewart should he remain winless through the cutoff race at Richmond.
An 11th-place finish last Saturday night at Kentucky was Stewart's second in the last three races. He has finished 13th or better in five of the last six.
Improving, he said, but not there just yet.
"I would have liked to have been a little better than what we were there at the end," Stewart said of the Kentucky finish, "… we definitely had to fight our way up there through the day.
"We never did anything trick to get track position. We pitted every time the pits were open. We didn't do any less than anybody else did on any stop. All in all, I thought we had a pretty honest day there; I can't complain about that."
For the first time this season, three of the four SHR cars finished inside the top 12 (Harvick was seventh while Busch was 12th). Two weeks earlier, in Michigan, three of the four were 13th or higher in the final rundown.
But for much of the year, SHR drivers have been all over the map. Harvick and Busch have already won -- Harvick twice and Busch once. But mechanical issues and pit-road problems continue to haunt the No. 4 team while Busch all but disappeared for nearly two months after his win, only to recently begin turning up near the front.
Teammate Danica Patrick, 28th in points, scored the second top-10 of her Cup career at Kansas. She has shown improvement in qualifying and on race day, but has yet to finish consistently inside the top 20. At Kentucky, she finished 21st, the final car on the lead lap.
While Harvick's results have been the benchmark for SHR, Stewart said the entire organization seems to be coming around. A bit slow, perhaps, but coming around just the same.
"I think so, across the board," he said. "Kurt and I talked about our cars right after the (Kentucky) race and we were both fighting the same thing. I think (Patrick and Harvick) were fighting a different set of problems.
"I think as an organization, as a whole, we were pretty good. Danica was pretty good all night, she just got kind of off on the tire sequence there and I think that bit them.
"I think all four of the cars were pretty good."