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Woody: There’s Smoke But Where’s The Fire?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 5 2011

It's July and Tony Stewart is still looking for his first points victory. Could he miss the Chase this year? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Erik J. Perel)

Larry Woody | Senior Writer

Tony Stewart has dug himself a deep hole in the point standings and the clock is ticking.

Stewart is 12th in the standings, with nine races remaining to set the field for the Chase for the Championship.

Following the 26th race on Sept. 10 at Richmond, only the top 10 in the standings plus two Wild Cards will be eligible for NASCAR’s playoffs.

Those two Wild Card entries go to the two drivers outside the top 10 (but inside the top 20) with the most wins.

Right now Tony has none.

David Ragan has one win – last Saturday’s career-first victory at Daytona – and is ranked 17th in the standings, making him Wild Card-eligible at present.

Others with a win but currently outside the top 20 are Brad Keselowski (22nd), Regan Smith (28th) and Trevor Bayne (51st). Bayne opted to run for Nationwide points, so he is ineligible for the Cup title and no threat to Stewart.

But Ragan, Smith and Keselowski could be. And if a winner(s) currently in the top 10 were to get bumped out, that would put them in the Wild Card category and lengthen Stewart’s

Tony Stewart needs to get hot this summer. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Gregg Ellman)

odds against getting in.

Right now Tony desperately needs to (A) work his way back into the secure Top 10 or (B) collect a win to pad his Wild Card credentials.

At the start of the season nobody would have imagined that Stewart would be fighting for his playoff life heading into the final stretch. Last year he won two races, two poles and finished 7th in the standings.

It was generally assumed that the two-time champ (2002, 2005) had worked the kinks out of being an owner/driver during last year’s second season in the dual role, and this year would be positioned to make a run for a third title. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

For whatever reason – and there’s a range of theories – something seems to be missing from the fiery, temperamental Stewart who exploded onto the NASCAR scene in 1999.

Maybe it’s the fire and temperament.

Tony admits he has made a conscious effort to reign in his temper, to keep a lid on his emotions. And for the most part he has succeeded. There haven’t been any major flare-ups this season. Also, there hasn’t been any wins.

Former team owner Joe Gibbs always defended Stewart’s tantrums by saying they were a manifestation of his competitive fire, and that fire was a good thing for an athlete to have.

By smothering the fire has Tony extinguished that competitive edge that once made him such a formidable driver? Or maybe it’s just confidence that the kinder, gentler Tony has at the same time become a back-in-the-pack racer.

I’ve always considered Stewart – nicknamed “Smoke” – to be one of the most talented racers in the sport’s history. I admired his vim and vinegar even if he occasionally took it too far.

Now that he’s teetering on the brink of becoming a playoff spectator, might we see a return of the Old Tony in these next nine races? I suspect so. He tried kinder and gentler and, like trying to turn a great white shark into a Sea World dolphin, it’s not working.

I suspect we’re going to see some sparks coming from Smoke, starting this weekend.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 5 2011
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Terry says:

    Like a golfer.(Tom Watson)…H of Fame or
    a successful MLB hitter.( George Brett ) H of Fame…
    A top flight driver will to start question himself when the wins don’t come like they use to….( Jeff Gordon )….
    Tom Watson all of the sudden could putt again when he was written off
    Brett won another batting title after he was considered over the hill and there was no pressure to excel….
    Jeff had kids and relaxed a little …he let JJ be the guy
    ….the wins started to come again
    SMOKE is in transition….from hot head hot shot….to grown up.
    He will win again…..