Tony Stewart is plowing his way through what might be described as a schizophrenic season.
The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series campaign has been hot and cold for the defending champion.
The past six races provide an open-window look into Stewart’s season. From Richmond to Pocono, he has scored a trio of third-place finishes mixed with runs of 24th, 25th and 25th.
“Three weeks ago in Charlotte, we struggled, and then again at Dover we obviously had a problem early in the race,” Stewart said. “I think the big thing, especially for these first 26 races, you’ve got to treat it as an average and know that you’re going to have a bad race here and there.”
The tour is rolling into the second half of the regular season. Race 15 is scheduled Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.
“You’ve just got to figure out if the lack of performance is because you’re not running well and not getting the cars right – you’ve got to figure that out,” Stewart said. “It’s just nice to rebound from the last two or three weeks like we did at Pocono (with a third). We’ve had some rough runs the last couple of weeks, so it is nice to be able to have a day like we had Sunday and work our way through the field. I was really proud of (crew chief) Steve Addington and our guys. They just did an awesome job.”
Stewart rang up two wins early in the season, putting him in somewhat of a comfort zone in the race for the Chase despite the fact he has fallen from a season-high of third in points to eighth entering the Michigan weekend.
Stewart said his team cannot rest on the probability that he’ll be in the Chase regardless.
“You feel better knowing you have two wins,” he said, “but the thing is, you don’t really think from that standpoint. You always go in there every weekend with the intention that you’re going to win the race. So you’re focusing on what you’ve got to do to keep your program good, so when you get in the Chase and you get four or five weeks closer, you start paying more attention to it.
“But, for right now, it’s just kind of the same thing we always talk about every year at this time. We’re taking it one week at a time, and you’re just trying to make sure that every track you’re going to you’re getting 100 percent out of what your package is. You just keep working toward that and think about that until you get four or five races from the Chase.”
Stewart hasn’t won a Sprint Cup race at MIS since his lone victory at the track in 2000, but his career record there also shows 10 top-five runs. He’s expected to be in the mix at the front as teams race on the freshly repaved two-mile surface.
Stewart said he isn’t concerned about the high speeds that will be generated this weekend.
“The safety of these cars has come a long way, and race track safety, too, with the soft walls,” he said. “I don’t think you are ever really concerned about it until something bad happens. But I’ve been to race tracks, and I’ve seen crashes at 60 mph that hurt people a lot worse than 160 mph. So I feel pretty confident with the safety package that we have, with both the race track side and with what NASCAR has done with the cars.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.