The dark, ominous clouds swirled overhead, a fitting backdrop as Tony Stewart eased his way past the haulers, through the opening in the fence and into the motorcoach compound at Talladega Superspeedway.
His 27th-place finish in Sunday's Aaron's 499 was the latest chapter in a season that thus far has failed to yield anything close to what has become expected from a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
Caught up in an early multicar crash, Stewart was forced to hobble his way through the remainder of a lengthy race, one that included a three-and-a-half hour rain delay and took more than seven hours to complete.
He was one of only two cars five laps off the pace when the checkered flag finally appeared, battling with fellow Chevrolet driver Jeff Burton for a position that few people would notice, and fewer would likely remember a day later.
His mood could have been sour. His attitude could have been surly. He could have fumed and no one would have blamed him.
Yet he showed none of those things.
"I guess my attitude is that it's not going to get worse than this," Stewart said, contemplating another disappointing result, yet mindful of how much more racing lies ahead.
"We're in the low part of it. ?When it gets better I don't know, but it's not going to get worse than this. It's going to get better and we're not going to stop until we make it better."
Eighteenth in points after the season's first three races, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led team have been unable to gain any traction since an 11th-place finish at Las Vegas.
The 27th-place finish at Talladega was the ninth time in 10 races Stewart's No. 14 entry had failed to crack the top-10.
There was the cut tire at Bristol; the restart issues with Joey Logano a week later at Auto Club Speedway; cars that refused to cooperate at Texas and Kansas; and a late two-tire call at Richmond that, combined with plenty of contact between Stewart and Kurt Busch, resulted in an 18th-place finish.
It's been 28 races since his last visit to the winner's circle (Daytona, July 2012), but Stewart, 41, has been through longer droughts. And all were eventually broken. He's won multiple races in all but one of his 14 previous seasons in Cup, and has won at least one race every year.
While he's rarely been outside the top 10 in points this early in the season -- perhaps once in all those years -- he's finished no worse than 11th in the standings in all that time.
There's a glimmer of hope on the horizon, but Stewart is careful not to read too much into short-range results.
One of a handful of participants in a recent Goodyear tire test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stewart believes the opportunity yielded fresh findings that could prove beneficial in the coming weeks. Additional tests are also on the docket as the team looks to get its program back on track.
"I don't think we test (this) week, but we test three weeks in a row after that," Stewart said. "We've got some opportunities to work through some stuff and try some things. I think we were able to find something that made us a little better at the (Indy) tire test last week. How many places it will be effective for, I don't know.
"All we can do is go to the race track and work right now. Having the tests coming up ? you know you typically want to save some for the end of the year. We're not in position to worry about saving tests for the end of the year. We're going to use them now and try to learn as much as we can and try to salvage (what we can) and get ourselves in the Chase."
Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, has qualified for the 10-race Chase For The Sprint Cup eight times since the format debuted nine years ago. He currently sits 56 points behind 10th-place Greg Biffle, with 16 races remaining before the Chase field is set.
The NASCAR season rolls into Darlington, S.C., this weekend before heading back to Charlotte for a two-week stay that includes the Sprint All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600.
Stewart's never won at Darlington, but has three top-10s in his last four starts there, including a pair of thirds. Charlotte Motor Speedway has been a bit more of a concern -- while he won the 2009 all-star race, his first victory with SHR, he's had a tougher time cracking the 600 riddle.
Of course, statistics mean nothing to Stewart, who says there's no rhyme or reason to hot streaks or cold runs. Numbers don't determine who wins or who loses, he says.
Being competitive does, and for now that's his focus.
"We've never not been successful at something and we're not going to start now," he said. "Anybody that thinks we're happy with where we're at and content with where we're at, they're badly mistaken.
"We'll just keep fighting through it and working through it and get everything we can get. And we will get it turned around."
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