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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart Age: 35
5 wins, 15 top 5’s, 19 top 10’s, 24 top 15’s
Avg Start: 16.7 Avg Finish: 13.8
Points Standing: 11th Driver Rating: 97.0
#20 Home Depot Chevy Crew Chief: Greg Zipadelli

For Tony Stewart, no season is uneventful, quiet or simple. By those criteria, it was a pretty normal season for Smoke. He won five races, stirred up controversy, fractured his shoulder blade, and missed the Chase.

Stewart’s season began in typical fashion with both success and controversy. A week after warning drivers of excessive bump drafting, it was Stewart getting penalized for ramming into Matt Kenseth at the Daytona 500. Despite damage, Stewart still finished 5th. The following week he led 28 laps before losing an engine late. He led laps in the first nine races, but only one win at Martinsville for his efforts. It was still a solid start and many predicted he would cruise into the Chase and vie for a third title.

A funny thing happened on the way to engraving his trophy. Stewart’s summer was inconsistent and he failed to make the Chase. Stewart’s regular season was very similar to Greg Biffle’s, the driver who finished second to Stewart in 2005. Both ran very well in the majority of races, but often finished much lower than deserved. Cracks began showing in the spring at Charlotte. After two hard crashes in both the Busch and Cup races, Stewart fractured his shoulder blade. This caused great discomfort the following week at Dover. He started the race, but was replaced by Ricky Rudd during the first caution. Rudd finished 25th.

One of the more entertaining images during the season was Stewart pounding dents out of his car after an early crash at Michigan. It was only three weeks after he injured his shoulder. He defended his trophy at the summer Daytona race, his second win of the season, but then things fell apart in July.

He was in the top five at Chicago before running out of fuel to finish 32nd. The following week at Loudon he was leading the race and looked to have a stout car. Then he scuffled with Ryan Newman when Newman tried to get a lap back from Stewart. Both cars crashed and it was Stewart’s second straight finish in the 30’s. The following week at Pocono he again got in a dust-up, this time spinning Clint Bowyer. The crash also collected Carl Edwards, who retaliated by spinning Stewart entering the pits. Stewart was penalized but did recover to finish 7th, but it ended a tumultuous month.

Suddenly he went from a lock for the Chase to sitting on the bubble. The final blow came at Richmond where he crashed his primary car in practice. He struggled during the race, finished 18thth in 2005 but 6 in 2006. and barely missed the Chase. There were plenty of missed chances during the first 26 races. Stewart had two finishes worse than 30

Reduced to driving for wins, Stewart was free to experiment a little during the Chase. He won at Kansas by gambling on fuel. Then the team found a fast setup for both Atlanta and its cousin track Texas, where he won both races. Stewart had five top fives during the Chase including wins 3,4 and 5.

Aside from the disappointment of missing the Chase, Stewart’s season was impressive. He scored 5 wins for the second straight season, led the most laps, was third in top fives, second in earnings and fifth in driver rating. After a nearly flawless 2005, his 2006 effort was a pretty decent encore.

Stewart will begin 2007 like he did in 2006, a favorite to win the Cup and considered one of the best drivers in the world. The #20 team has every ingredient necessary for success. He can win anywhere; in fact there are only four current tracks where he hasn’t won. Joe Gibbs is one of the top three or four organizations in Cup and Greg Zipadelli is the longest tenured crew chief. It all points to one of the elite teams in NASCAR.

One of the tracks Stewart hasn’t won at is Talladega, but it might be one of his best. He has six second place finishes, 8 top fives and an average finish of 11.9. A win at Talladega or in the Daytona 500 would definitely add another highlight to his impressive resume.

No driver has repeated since Jeff Gordon nearly ten years ago and for good reason. There are more requirements and commitments for the current champion than other drivers. This can drain a driver and will ultimately hurt performance at some level. Without this burden Stewart could have another stellar and consistent season.

Maybe the only question mark for Stewart is the Car of Tomorrow. Gibbs and Stewart should cope well with the brand new car, but it is such an unknown that there is a chance to slip. Stewart can certainly drive any type of car on any type of track, so the new body type won’t be a problem granted Gibbs gives him adjustable cars. The only other question mark is his emotions, which can cost him at times.

Stewart will make the Chase this year. Despite last year’s struggles he still almost made the playoff field. With 12 spots, plus a few more points for each win, Stewart should coast into the Chase. Once he gets in he is an instant favorite to win it all.

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