One of the unquestionable surprises of 2009 was the immediate surge of Tony Stewart from mid-pack to the top of the Sprint Cup standings in the very first year of team ownership. Most observers had picked Stewart to miss the Chase, and there he was, running in first place for most of the regular season. The Chase itself didn't go so well for Stewart, but then, it didn't go so well for anyone not named Jimmie Johnson.
Cut to 2010, and Smoke is foundering. He's drifted slowly back in the standings, to the point that he's now sitting in 15th position. Aside from a second-place finish at Bristol, he's looked off-center much of the season, culminating in a 23rd-place Richmond run where he slid backwards almost the entire race.
This time last year, heading into the 11th race, he was in third place, about to make the run that would put him at the top of the standings for months. And Stewart has always run better in warmer weather, which bodes well for him and his team. Still, as he noted at an appearance on Monday, he and crew chief Darian Grubb have some serious work to do.
"We haven’t been able to be good the last half of races, the last two-thirds of races," he said. "We start off strong and somehow we lose the handle on it and don’t get it back by the end of the day."
Smoke's not out of the hunt, certainly; there are still 16 races left to make the Chase. But with so many talented drivers around him fighting for those same 12 spots, he can't afford to hope to make this up somewhere down the line. The concern needs to start now.