Tony Stewart fans, step away from the ledge. It’s too soon to jump.
The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion started his 2015 season on a decidedly low note, crashing out of the Daytona 500 en route to a 42-place finish. Things improved only marginally the following week, with a 30th-place showing at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He was 33rd at Las Vegas Motorsport Speedway two weeks ago and 39th Sunday (wrecked again) in Phoenix.
That’s a lousy start, no matter how you slice it. And for some Stewart fans, the time has apparently come to begin jumping off the bandwagon.
They point to Smoke’s age – 43 – as a sign that his best competitive days may be behind him. They point to the departure of crew chief Darian Grubb – and before him, Greg Zipadelli – as contributing factors in Stewart’s fall from grace. They say he’s got “too much on his plate,” running the Eldora Speedway dirt track and the recently acquired All-Star Sprint Series. They blame the compound-fractured leg he suffered in a Sprint Car spill two summers back, and of course, they point to the on-track tragedy that took the life of driver Kevin Ward, Jr. as proof that Stewart may never again be the driver he once was.
At the risk of quelling the panic, here are a few simple facts.
For the record, Stewart and his Sprint Cup brethren have had just three races to acclimate themselves to NASCAR’s new lower-horsepower, reduced-downforce rules package. Some drivers have adapted well to those changes, while others have not. The sanctioning body’s newly announced ban on independent testing has made it especially tough on those who have not.
With testing restricted, struggling teams like Stewart’s need more time to diagnose and cure their on-track ills. And despite all the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth in recent days, three weeks does not qualify as “more time.”
Repeat after me. It is far too early to begin throwing dirt on Tony Stewart’s grave.
Two years ago, under NASCAR’s previous championship format, a start like Stewart’s would have been extremely difficult to overcome. Under the current Chase system, however, a driver can choke on his own vomit for 25 consecutive weeks, then salvage the season and earn a berth in the championship Chase with a single win in Race 26 at Richmond.
Is there cause for concern for Tony Stewart fans right now? You bet there is.
At both Daytona and Phoenix, the former Sprint Cup Series champion was eliminated in crashes of his own creation. In Atlanta and Las Vegas, he finished multiple laps in arrears, with no wrecks, mechanical failures or pit-road miscues to blame.
His cars were simply, painfully, horribly slow. And worse, he and his team seemed to have little idea how to fix them. That’s a problem, but it’s not insurmountable.
All it takes is time and patience, something fans seem to have little of these days.
In today’s instant gratification society, we are no longer willing to wait for success. We want what we want, and we want it now. We cook our meals in microwave ovens, tapping our toes in annoyance at a recipe that requires an investment of more than 45 seconds. We eat over the sink, with no time to set the table or wash the dishes. We watch television in 10-second increments, mashing the remote control and hurtling wildly thorough all 300 channels, unable to commit to anything, lest we miss something more exciting happening just a few clicks away.
Today’s sports fan has a t-shirt in his closet for every Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup and NBA champion from the last 15 years. His loyalty to those teams lasted less than a week, and required an investment no more emotional than a trip to WalMart. He roots for whichever team is hot at the moment, and as a result, he truly roots for no one at all.
That fan makes a lot of noise in the local watering hole on Super Bowl Sunday, but that variety of drive-by fandom has no meaningful payoff.
There are guys who marry their High School sweetheart and remain faithful – through thick and thin, good times and bad – for 50 years. There are also guys who attend their High School Reunion in a rented Corvette, with a hooker on each arm.
One of those guys is the real deal. The other is paper-thin.
As difficult as it may be these days, Stewart fans must keep the faith. Stewart and crew chief Chad Johnston have the full effort and resources of both Stewart Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports behind them. Some of the smartest people in the sport work inside those walls, and they’ll get things figured out, soon enough.
It is highly unlikely that Stewart has forgotten how to drive a race car in the last few months, and he insists that he no longer struggles with the baggage – both physical and emotional – acquired in a difficult last two seasons.
He says he’s going to be fine, and you should believe him.
Hang in there, Smoke fans. It may not be easy at present, but it’ll be worth it in the end.