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Stewart Says Consistency Is Elusive Prey In Cup

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, October 7 2011

Tony Stewart in his office. He's not all that shocked by his poor finish at Dover last week. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Erik J. Perel)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

BLUE SPRINGS, Mo. – Surprise was not one of the things that Tony Stewart felt after following up two winning runs to start this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship by faltering in race No. 3 at Dover last Sunday.

Disappointment, yes, but surprise? Nope. Not these days.

These days, Stewart said as he leaned back in a comfy chair following an autograph session at an Office Depot store, consistency is a dwindling resource. Yes, there are just too many good drivers out there. But perhaps more importantly, the current generation of Sprint Cup race car is proving frustratingly fickle for the people charged with making them fast to produce consistently positive results.

“The package of getting these cars right every week,” Stewart said, “it’s getting narrower and narrower. What works one place doesn’t necessarily work at another place. What worked for us at Loudon and Chicago obviously didn’t work for us at Dover.”

It was at Chicagoland in the Chase-opener where Stewart rocked the sport. After qualifying just 26th fastest, his car came alive during the race. He led the final 30 laps and beat Kevin Harvick to the finish line.

The victory was his first of the season. It was his first, in fact, since October of last year. It was just his fourth podium finish of 2011.

Happiness mixed with surprise after the race as he said, “I don’t think Darian (Grubb, his crew chief), either one of us thought that we had as good a car as we thought we needed to

Tony Stewart confers with crew members in the Cup garages. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Gregg Ellman)

win today. But it didn’t take long in the race to figure out that we were pretty solid.”

The following week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Stewart won again. Though he led just two laps in getting the victory, Stewart and Grubb again had a fast race car.

Yes, both victories involved fuel mileage but they also involved fast Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

So, suddenly, there was Stewart and his No. 14 Chevrolet at the top of the standings. Stewart, again suddenly, was out of  the shadows and being called a favorite to win this year’s championship.

Not calling Stewart a favorite after the win in Loudon, however, was Stewart.

When it was suggested to him post-race that he now had big momentum going for him, he wouldn’t bite.

Stewart professes not to know much about the cars he drives and that he leaves dealing with the oily bits to Grubb and the others he pays to do that sort of thing. But in reality, Stewart knows modern race cars and he knew after Loudon that while he may have momentum, his cars may not have it.

“When you talk about momentum, that race car doesn’t know anything about momentum,” he said. “It knows what you put in it, it knows how we drive it. It doesn’t know stats, it doesn’t know anything other than just what’s put in it.”

His point was made last week in Dover. The team, car and driver which looked so good the previous two weeks, was searching once again on the high banks and concrete surface of the Monster Mile.

Sitting in a quiet, empty break room at the back of the Missouri Office Depot Thursday, Stewart went back to work explaining the nature of today’s Sprint Cup cars.

“It’s a matter of guys (0n teams) just finding things that work on race tracks,” he said. “But its been harder to find things that work consistently.”

A quick look at the stats tend to prove the point. When Stewart won the first two races of the year, he became the first driver to go back-to-back since Harvick did it in late March and early April.

Stewart is greeted by some of those responsible for making his car go fast. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Erik J. Perel)

Sixteen teams and drivers have won races this year. Teams nowhere near the top 20 in points are logging top-five finishes. Consistency is just plain inconsistent.

Look to the cars, Stewart says, not the drivers when searching for answers.

“It shows just how technical these packages are,” Stewart said. “And, it shows how techincal the competition is. You can’t just get close enough any more. You got to get it right on the money.”

These days, the proximity of the money can remain a mystery until the race is well under way.

Take Stewart’s case, for example. He and his team had no idea how good they would be in Joliet. Not back at the shop, not when the car was being rolled off the hauler, not when the green flag dropped.

But at Loudon, Stewart said he felt the car would be close to being on the money the week before the race. He and his teammate, Ryan Newman, had run well at New Hampshire recently. The team felt good about the data they had and, yes, the feelings were spot on and he won.

“We had such a good weekend at Loudon (when he and Newman both qualified on the front row and then finished first and second in the race) with those cars in the spring, the second time around we were feeling good,” Stewart said.

But, reminded he had also won two races at Dover in the past, Stewart smiled a bit.

Not in the current kind of cars, he said.

“The technology changes so fast in our sport that it’s hard to guess about what’s going to happen,” Stewart said. “The technology is changing, guys (on other teams) are getting smarter and smarter about setups. You’ve got just wait (until race day) to see what you’ve got in the car.”

Must make for an unsettling, frustrating kind of life it was suggested.

The two-time champ leaned back into the comfy chair.

“It’s always frustrating when the car’s not doing what you want it to do,” Stewart said. “But, there’s not much you can do about it. You just do the best you can with what you got.

“But if we had all the answers every week, and we had it perfect every week, it wouldn’t be fun.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, October 7 2011
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