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Relieved Stewart still seeks improvement

NASCAR.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Whether it is Tony Stewart's version of a pep talk or just his frank assessment of the situation, the last time he publicly questioned his Stewart-Haas Racing team's title chances he ended up holding a big trophy and cashing the champ's check at the end of the year.

Just before the 10-race Chase in 2011, Stewart said his team didn't deserve to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship with the way it had been running. And he promptly answered with a historic five wins in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and his third Cup title.

After winning his first race two weeks ago at Dover in the midst of a trying season, Stewart again questioned whether he and his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet team would be able to pull it together and legitimately give chase in the Chase.

"The scenarios were quite a bit different,'' Stewart acknowledged Wednesday while in Daytona Beach to help promote the July 6 Coke Zero 400 -- a race he's won four times, including last year.

"In 2011 we had cars that were capable of running fast, we just kept making mistakes,'' he explained. "We couldn't get our cars balanced but we had speed. This year it's been a scenario where none of us could get going. None of us had speed. We knew what we were messing up on in 2011, it was just a matter of executing. This year it's been more figuring out what variables we are missing.''

Stewart said the team has seen immediate payoffs from tests at places such as Dover, Del., and Pocono, Pa., where on Sunday he and teammate Ryan Newman recorded the team's first double top-five finish of the year.

But using the sacred few tests now wasn't always the plan.

"We had planned on saving them for later in the year, but the way our spring's been, if we didn't start using these tests now, we may not have another opportunity to use them for anything important at the end of the year,'' Stewart said. "I think (Competition Director Greg) Zipadelli's reasoning for using them now made a lot of sense and it's been productive.''

So productive that Stewart's meteoric move up the standings has already been one of the best stories of the young summer.

Three weeks ago he left NASCAR's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600, winless and ranked 20th in the standings, wondering if he would even be able to challenge for one of the two Chase Wild Card positions.

Now he is 13th in points with a win and is only 17 points out of a Chase-guaranteed top-10 position. And Stewart has only two finishes outside the top 10 at this week's venue, Michigan International Speedway, in the last nine races there.

Stewart admitted Wednesday that while he never lost faith in his team or the organization, he was getting concerned about the season -- his worst start to a Cup year in his 15-year career.

Not only was he struggling as the team's namesake and co-owner, but his other two cars, driven by Newman and rookie Danica Patrick, weren't getting consistent results either. For much of the early-going Newman's No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet was carrying the team torch, scoring six of the organization's nine top-10 finishes through the Charlotte race. Patrick's pole position and eighth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 had been the highlight of her year.

"Absolutely, I wondered if it was ever going to turn around,'' Stewart said. "When you figure we were a third of the way into the year and not looking very good. I don't think we've ever been in a scenario where we were at this time of year and outside the top 20 in points.

"Now we're better than that, but it's taken two good weeks in a row to get us there. Anytime anything's going bad, your reasoning and ability to sit there and see the big picture gets clouded because you're so focused on trying to get things fixed.

"You think in the back of your mind, you've got to get things turned around and it may not be this year. And it still may not be this year, but I'm feeling a lot better about it this week than I was two or three weeks ago.''

Stewart was also still visibly frustrated this week about what he considered erroneous recent press reports that his team was in turmoil with impending turnover.

He chastised reporters during the winner's press conference at Dover for using unnamed sources and stirring the pot. And he seemed still miffed at the situation because of the negative impact the stories had on his 200-plus employees who were working frantically to right the ship.

"I wasn't even aware of all the rumors until Dover, that weekend,'' Stewart said.  "So being able to squash all that at the shop has been a lot of help too, it's got everybody refocused and on the same page.

"I think the (last) three weeks have been good. But I'm not comfortable enough to say it's all turned around. There is a more positive environment at the shop now. Everyone is excited and I think just a little bit of success was a lot of motivation for these guys. When the teams are working hard like they have been all year and not getting results, it's frustrating.

"Just to get a mediocre day where we ran sixth and seventh was a huge day for us, a huge momentum shift.''

And that's one of those intangibles -- like a good pep talk -- that Stewart believes can go a long way.

"We definitely believe in (momentum),'' Stewart said. "I think it's that way in any sport. It's like that in business and life. When things are going good, everything falls in suit with it. It's definitely good when you into the shop and see 200 people and their heads are higher, they're laughing and joking around again. 

"You have three good weeks in a row like that and the momentum carries on to the whole organization. Even the people upstairs paying the bills are in a better mood. It's infectious. And it's nice to see that.''

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