Panic time? Not yet for Stewart
CONCORD, N.C. -- Tony Stewart was on a roll, as he usually is when surrounded by inquisitive fans such as the ones on Monday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when the subject of his new girlfriend and favorite chili recipe came up.
According to the two-time Sprint Cup champion, when his girlfriend asked for the chili ingredients, he called his ex-girlfriend for the recipe.
Before we go any further, the fact Stewart can call his ex in front of his current and still be in the relationship -- or even alive -- may be a greater accomplishment than winning Cup titles in 2002 and 2005 or anything else in his racing career.
Back to the chili. The ex-girlfriend told Stewart that "we just kind of had all this stuff and we just always added in." When he asked where to start, the ex said, "I don't know."
"I said, 'Great! You and my crew chief ought to get together,'" joked Stewart, referring to Darian Grubb.
Stewart may have been here to entertain and help promote the upcoming races in Charlotte, but his priority is figuring out what's wrong with his team.
Ten races into the season he is 15th in points, 12 spots worse than this time a year ago and 53 points behind the 12th and final spot for the Chase. He is coming off a 23rd-place finish at Richmond International Raceway, a track that he told the fans was his favorite "before I ran like crap on Saturday."
The performance of the No. 14 is so off that Stewart feels like he's in "The Twilight Zone."
"We're confused," Stewart said. "Darian and I are both confused with what's going on and why it's going on. The good thing is the morale on our team is really high still. Darian and I are side by side on it. Our attitude with each other is great.
"That is a big positive in trying to get it all sorted out and figured out, making sure we're not building barriers between ourselves. We're not even talking about it because he feels bad for me after the race and I feel bad for him and the guys."
A year ago, Stewart felt great about almost everything. He had seven top-10s and three top-5s in his debut as the owner/driver of Stewart-Haas Racing. He was coming off a second-place finish at Richmond and only a few weeks removed from winning the All-Star Race, which was why he was invited for this event.
Just as rewarding, his second car, driven by Ryan Newman, was 10th in points after a disastrous start.
The only thing that has changed since is the performance. The crews, setups and equipment are all basically the same.
"There's no guarantees in racing," Stewart said. "Things change. We're missing on something right now, but we'll find it."
The problem, as with the chili recipe, is deciding where to start. The setups that worked a year ago aren't. Stewart tested last week in Georgia -- a big step for a driver who hates to test -- and he wasn't even a factor at a Richmond track where his average finish is about 10th.
"I don't know," Stewart said when asked what needed to be done. "I don't know. Honest, I don't."
What he knows is that there can't be wholesale changes hoping to find the right combination because by doing so he could dig himself into a deeper hole.
"It's a balancing act," Stewart said. "You can't get too crazy and get out there too far because you can't give up the points. At the same time, you've got to start looking. What you think is your base and what you've got to stay with, if that's not working, you've got to look at something different."
Stewart hasn't been in this position often, but he has been in it. In 2006, after winning his second title, he missed the Chase by one spot when only 10 drivers qualified for the 10-race playoff. His 11th-place finish in points was the only time in 11 seasons through 2009 that he finished worse than ninth.
So 15th really does feel like "The Twilight Zone."
But it doesn't feel like 2006. Not yet, anyway.
And there are some encouraging signs. Stewart's average starting position is 10.5 compared to 11.7 this time a year ago. He's also led more laps, 100 to 52.
There's no guarantees in racing. Things change. We're missing on something right now, but we'll find it.” -- Tony Stewart
He and Grubb just haven't been able to make the cars better in the second half of races.
"If we were three races to go I might be a little more nervous about it," Stewart admitted. "It doesn't mean you take it for granted because you've got that time, but I'm not sure the panic button has been hit yet."
In 2006, longtime crew chief Greg Zipadelli wasn't far from panic. He reminded us at the time that if the teams failed, all eyes would be on him because everybody knows Stewart is a great racer.
Stewart is doing all he can to make sure Grubb doesn't feel that internal pressure. They share a plane on the way home from races instead of going opposite directions as Stewart and Zipadelli often did. They share each other's pain over a bad weekend, each doing what he can to make the other feel better.
"I'm pretty comfortable with where we're at from that standpoint," Stewart said. "That's one thing I'm not worried about in this equation, the partnership Darian and I have."
That Newman visited Victory Lane for the first time at SHR last month in Phoenix -- in case you're wondering, that's where the new girlfriend is from -- has lessened the pain of Stewart's struggles. As an owner he sees the bigger picture, something he never had to worry about before.
Newman is good for Stewart's morale, as well. They fish together and are so competitive, as Newman recently noted, they would race to see who came out first if both went to the bathroom at the same time.
"I caught an 8-pound bass on my property the other day," said Stewart, referring to land where he's building a house in his hometown of Columbus, Ind. "Ryan sent me a picture of an 8-and-a-half-pounder ... 12 hours later. That's how competitive we are."
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The competitive juices drive Stewart at 38 as much as they did when he entered the Cup series in 1999 with Joe Gibbs Racing. But his number of competitive years could be dwindling unless he picks up Mark Martin's workout habit, or as one of the fans said before asking a question, "I've been a fan of yours for forever ever since you were young."
Don't think Stewart didn't sarcastically mention that once or twice during the 30-minute Q-and-A. Also don't think Stewart plans to start a regular exercise routine, saying his girlfriend got him to walk once last weekend but no more.
At least he's able to laugh and take jabs at himself during this slow start. When the speedway brought out a handful of red balloons and explained that inclement weather forced the postponement of an event in which Stewart was to release 600 with vouchers for free tickets inside, the driver deadpanned, "I thought it was going to be pretty cool to see if I could get 600 balloons to get my fat butt off the ground."
Earlier he wondered out loud why people call a microphone a "mike" and not a "Jim."
"I'm one of those guys I've got a lot of useless knowledge," Stewart said.
This might be an appropriate time to reintroduce the girlfriend. Stewart is in a good place personally, maybe one of the best of his life, even though he sometimes can't believe his current girlfriend and former girlfriend get along.
"It's like I told the current girlfriend, I was friends with these girls before I ever went out with them," Stewart said. "Just because the going-out part didn't work out doesn't mean the friend part didn't work out. It's pretty cool. I've actually got a girlfriend that is understanding."
If only she understood how to fix his race team, life would be perfect.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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