In recent weeks Tony Stewart has been at his irascible best. He's called other drivers "stupid" for their aggressive tactics. He's snorted fire at reporters, labeling them "idiots" on several occasions. And Tempestuous Tony has even taken potshots at himself and his number 14 Chevy team, saying a month ago in the midst of a slump that if they made the 10-race Chase for the Championship that they'd be "wasting" one of those title-contending spots. A contented man of 40, Stewart is not.
But the two-time Sprint Cup champion possesses a force of personality unmatched in NASCAR, and a fed-up Tony Stewart frequently transforms—with stunning quickness—into a fast Tony Stewart. This is precisely what's happened over the last two weeks. After failing to take a checkered flag during the 26-race regular season, Stewart, on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, became only the second driver in the Chase era (which began in 2004) to win the first two races of the playoffs. He now holds a seven-point lead over Kevin Harvick in the Chase and, perhaps more significant, a 29-point advantage over the five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is now 10th in the standings (sidebar). "We had one of those seasons up to the Chase where we couldn't do anything right," Stewart says. "I'm hoping and praying that we're through that bad-luck string."
In four of the first seven races of 2011, the stopwatch revealed that Stewart had a potentially winning car—and yet he failed to reach Victory Lane because of a series of pit-road gaffes, untimely cautions and uncharacteristic driver miscues. The prevailing wisdom was that Stewart would rise during the summer months, which is his usual M.O. because he performs as well as any driver on slick, sun-baked tracks due to his dirt-track background. Instead during June, July and August, his average finish was 15.1. The low point came at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 21, even though he finished ninth. "At Michigan, Tony said we weren't Chase contenders," says Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief. "[That's when] everybody started taking an extra load."
Since then, Stewart and Grubb clearly have discovered a setup that is now the envy of the garage. But can they keep it going? By his own admission, Dover International Speedway—the site of the third Chase race on Sunday—is Stewart's weakest track in the playoffs. He hasn't finished higher than 21st in his last two starts at the Monster Mile. But if he can emerge with a top 10, it could actually cause Stewart to display an emotion that he hasn't shown much in public recently: happiness.
Is it time for Jimmie Johnson to worry? During Sunday's race the reigning five-time Cup champion was uncharacteristically snippy at Chad Knaus, telling his crew chief that his words of encouragement during the race were "terrible" and "annoying." Said Johnson after he finished 18th, "We can't run 10th anymore. We need a bunch of W's." On the other end of the spectrum from Johnson is Brad Keselowski. One of two wild cards to make it into the Chase, Keselowski has blossomed into a true title contender. After finishing fifth in the first Chase race, Keselowski came in second at New Hampshire and now stands third in the standings. The rest of the field should take note: Over the last nine events, no one has scored more points than Keselowski, who when this string started was 23rd in the standings.
GREGG ELLMAN-POOL/GETTY IMAGES (CHECKERED FLAG)
LOUDON CLEAR Stewart cruised to his 41st career victory, beating Brad Keselowski to the flag by 7.225 seconds.
JERRY MARKLAND/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (STEWART)
[See caption above]
RUSSELL LABOUNTY/AUTOSTOCK (JOHNSON)