By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
It’s been almost four full seasons since Tony Stewart — one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers — reached victory lane. Stewart is in the midst of his final season on the circuit, and things as you may know by now, started off on the wrong foot after a severe back injury just weeks before the start of the season sidelined the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet for nine races.
If Stewart is wanting a storybook finish to his incredible NASCAR career, he will need to continue chipping away at the top-30 of the point standings, and he will need to find a way to reach victory lane. That’s the only path he has left to making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Stewart has reached victory lane 48 times in his 18 seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, so you would expect that to be a slam dunk. But like I previously mentioned, Stewart hasn’t sniffed victory lane in almost four years. Also through six starts this year, Stewart has just one top-10 finish. That top-10 finish came at Talladega, and it happened after Ty Dillon drove the No. 14 to the finish line, because Stewart relinquished the seat early in the event.
So needless to say winning isn’t a given by any stretch for Stewart.
However, I am seeing some huge improvement all of a sudden in the last two weeks for Stewart and his No. 14 team. I honestly believe a win may be closer than its ever been in his last 83 tries.
Through the early portion of the season, the No. 14 Chevrolet seemed to lack overall speed, and it showed in qualifying.
Last week, Stewart nabbed his first top-10 start of the year as he qualified in sixth position at Pocono Raceway. Stewart stayed in the thick of the top-10 all race long, but unfortunately for Stewart, he was caught in an unfavorable spot while racing for position. As a result Stewart got loose and slammed into Danica Patrick on lap 93. Stewart would finish 34th.
But even with the disappointing finish, it just felt like the team was much more competitive than they had been in some time.
Friday at Michigan International Speedway, Stewart continued the trend of being fast.
Stewart advanced to the final round of qualifying, where he laid down the third fastest lap time. After Stewart recorded his best qualifying effort in a race since Watkins Glen last Summer, he sounded very optimistic about his chances in Sunday’s FireKeepers 400.
“We just kept getting better and better honestly. Typically, you get tighter and tighter as each run goes and we were still a little too free at the beginning and then it seemed like it just kept coming to us and we kept making changes to compensate for it,” Stewart explained. “The big thing was that break in between practice and qualifying for Mike (Bugarewicz, crew chief) to make those changes he did. It is definitely a good position to be in for here. This is a track where track position means so much anyway. We are at least off to a good start right now.”
Stewart said of the changes that his crew chief made between practice and qualifying, “It got my confidence back there and made me feel like I finally had the right-rear (tire) in the track there. Now we can hustle a little bit.”
Unquestionably the No. 14 car has a lot more speed than it did just weeks ago, and now Stewart is starting to mention that he’s feeling his confidence coming back. If the team can hit on some things in practice on Saturday, who knows they could come to life on raceday.
Regardless, with a little more rapport with Bugarewicz, Stewart very well could turn what was looking like a sad curtain call into an incredible end to an amazing career.