Ask any fan of NASCAR to name the top drivers and Tony Stewart is likely to be included. Stewart has been a force since winning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award in 1999. He showcased his talents that year when he finished fourth in the Cup's final standings.
With nine seasons of racing on NASCAR's biggest stage in the books, Stewart has won two Cup Series championships and has finished in the top 10 in eight of those nine years. His consistent, aggressive and championship style driving contributes to his already colorful persona. It is from that why Stewart has such a fan appreciation.
Nothing new for Stewart
Stewart has a reputation for beginning the Cup season slowly and finishing strong. In 2007, Stewart crashed and finished last in the season's first race, the Daytona 500. He would go on to heat up in the summer months, where he picked up three wins in four races and six consecutive top-10 finishes.
Certainly strong finishes are preferable as you want to be on the top of your game when you enter the Chase, but starting slow can jeopardize your championship opportunities. Entering the 2008 season, team adjustments, coupled with historic slow starts, have created concerns from fantasy owners. Foremost of the concerns was how much of an adjustment Stewart might need in making the switch from Chevrolet to Toyota.
Stewart has made an almost seamless transition to Toyota. It really should not come as a surprise given the successes he has had with other types of vehicles. Prior to his rookie season with NASCAR, Stewart was an IRL Indy Car Series champion in 1997. Before he made his mark in Indy cars, Stewart made a name for himself in the battle driven world of the United States Auto Club. He has four USAC championships, including what, at the time, had been unprecedented: a win of USAC's Triple Crown.
How Stewart stacks up
Through eight races, Stewart's average finish this year is 11.9 versus last year's 17.6. In 2008, he has five top-10 and three top-five finishes. Last year at this juncture, he recorded four top-10s and one top-five finish. It is interesting to note that although Stewart has shown improvement in his finishes from last season, they have not reflected in the standings; he sits in seventh place, which mirrors his place in the standings last season.
While few would doubt the command he has of his car, some may call into question the mastery of his emotions on and off the track. Stewart has been involved in several incidents with other drivers during his career. He was placed on probation for six races after an incident in this season's Budweiser Shootout with Kurt Busch, brother of new teammate Kyle Busch. The incident refocused concerns on how well Stewart and Busch would work together as a team, especially considering their checkered past.
Busch's move to Joe Gibbs Racing has not created issues between the teams. Busch, as a teammate, has increased the competitive environment at Gibbs Racing without personality clashes getting in the way. Stewart remains the top dog at Gibbs Racing, and the addition of Busch has heightened his competitiveness; he clearly is motivated to remain Gibbs Racing's best driver.
Stewart has not won a race this season; his best result was a second-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway. It wasn't until the middle of July that he won his first race last season at Chicagoland Speedway in the USG Sheetrock 400. Stewart does not want to wait until July again this year for a checkered flag finish. Two races worth revisiting this season are the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Food City 500 held at Bristol.
Stewart finished second without leading a lap in Atlanta and was very critical about the tires Goodyear brought to the track. The following race held at Bristol showcased Stewart's dominance on the track. He led 267 laps, only to be involved in a late race accident with Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick. These two races had the potential of temper outbursts, but Stewart handled the aftermath of both races remarkably well.
Looking forward, Stewart has many positives that should encourage fantasy heading into the summer. His results are ahead of last seasons, and he has only three finishes outside of the top 10. Given historical results, Stewart looks poised to challenge for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Adjustments to a new manufacturer have not impeded his 2008 season and having Busch as a teammate has not created any issues. On the contrary, Busch adds an element of competition to who is Gibbs best driver. It's a position Stewart does not want to relinquish.
One negative for Stewart is he has not dominated many races this season, with only 289 laps led this year versus 584 at this time last season. Out of the 289 laps led, 267 came at Bristol. All things considered, Stewart has far more positives working for him. He sits seventh in the standings, one spot behind teammates Denny Hamlin and five behind Busch. Stewart is receiving some serious competition from his teammates, and he should look to re-establish his position as Gibbs' best driver. Fantasy owners could look for a victory before mid July and a more dominant presence on the track in the summer months.
About Bob Frykholm
Frykholm has been a KFFL contributor since February 2008.
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