CUP: Stewart Rebounds From Slow Start

Editor’s Note: is profiling the top 30 drivers in the final Sprint Cup standings.

After winning four times in 2009, Tony Stewart expected to contend for race wins and a third Sprint Cup Series title in 2010.

He accomplished the first goal – winning at Atlanta and Auto Club Speedway in the fall – but the Stewart-Haas Racing team never seemed to get on track during the 10-race Chase For The Sprint Cup.

The California victory vaulted Stewart up five spots, from 10th to fifth, in the points standings, but finishes of 17th or worse in four of the final six races left him seventh in the final standings.

In addition to his two wins, the 39-year-old Stewart had nine top-five finishes, 17 top-10s and a pair of poles.

After a six-race stretch that saw him finish 16th or worse early in the season dropped him to 18th in points, Stewart began to slowly climb back into Chase contention. A ninth-place run at Dover in May began a streak of 11 top-10 finishes in 14 races that put Stewart on solid ground when the Chase began.

Problems in the first two Chase races, however, put the team in a hole and left Stewart scrambling to recover as much ground as possible.

Season Highlight: “Winning at Phoenix in the spring with [teammate] Ryan [Newman] was a highlight for sure,” Stewart said.

It was Newman’s first win with the SHR team, and the first career win for crew chief Tony Gibson.

Likewise, Stewart said winning at California was big.

“That’s knocking one more of those tracks off the list of places where we hadn’t won,” he said.

Low Point: Stewart had the opportunity to make a Chase statement in the opening race at New Hampshire, running out front for 100 laps and holding the lead with just two laps remaining. But a fuel gamble bit the team, and instead of a win, Stewart was saddled with a 24th-place finish. He fell four spots, to 10th, in points, and when he had problems the following weekend at Dover, he found himself 162 points out of the lead.

Defining Moment: It likely came off the track for Stewart, who was honored with the Home Depot Humanitarian Award at season’s end.

“It’s very humbling,” said Stewart, who was nominated for his Prelude to the Dream exhibition race at Eldora Speedway and annual Smoke Show at Texas Motor Speedway. Both events raise funds for a variety of charities.

“It shouldn’t just be for me,” he said. “I think everybody at Eldora, all the drivers that come to the Prelude, [the folks at] Texas Motor Speedway that help us out with the Smoke Show. It should be divided among all those guys because they are the ones that make it happen.”

Key Stat: Stewart has won at least one race each season since making the move to Cup in 1999. It’s the longest such streak among active drivers.

Outlook: Although he only won half as many races as he did in 2009, Stewart remains one of the top drivers in the sport. But to get back into the form that saw him win championships in 2002 and 2005 will require the team to improve not only areas where they have struggled, but where they have been strong as well.

“The thing that I think everybody focuses on, they find their strengths and weaknesses, and they work on their weaknesses,” Stewart said. “This is a series that the technology changes so much that you can’t rest on the things that were good, you can’t just overlook those for the next year … you have to worry about every aspect of your company.

“The things that you did good, you still have to figure out how to make those better for the next year.” • Darlington Raceway president receives Palmetto Patriot Award