Tony Stewart spoke from the heart Tuesday, taking questions from reporters in the midst of the worst season in his storied, 17-year NASCAR career. The three-time Cup Series champion has managed just one Top-10 finish in 18 starts this season, and is mired in 28th place in the championship standings.
“It’s been a disappointing year,” said a disconsolate Stewart in a NASCAR Media Teleconference. “We’re desperately trying to figure out what it’s going to take to move the needle.”
A compound fracture of his right leg in a 2013 Iowa Sprint Car crash sidelined the Indiana native for 15 races. He missed three more races in 2014, in the aftermath of an on-track incident that took the life of fellow competitor Kevin Ward Jr. Since then, good days have been few and far between, both on and all the race track.
Asked if those hardships have affected his performance, Stewart answered in typical, candid fashion.
“Yeah, it did,” he said. “I wish I could say it didn’t, but it did. The whole year’s been frustrating. It just seems like everywhere we go, we fight the same balance. That’s the part that’s been frustrating for the whole 14 car.
“We’re trying a ton of things and just can’t seem to find anything that moves the needle and seems to make significant change. It just seems like the further we go into the year, the more frustrating that gets, too.”
Stewart sounded weary, beleaguered, even depressed Tuesday. There was no sign of the cantankerous, fiesty “Smoke,” who enjoyed jousting with media members almost as much as he enjoyed twisting the wheel of a winged Sprint Car. It wasn’t so much what he said, it was how he said it.
"It's been a disappointing year up to this point,” he said, in a virtual monotone. “No matter what the package is, we seem to fight the same balance. I’m just trying to figure out how to get my car working better. I still like working with (crew chief) Chad Johnston. I don't feel like he's holding us back. I'm holding him and the team back, versus vice versa. There's something about the way this (rules) package is that just doesn't suit my driving style. It's just a matter of me trying to figure out how to go forward and get our cars better.”
Stewart called his recent struggles “disheartening,” saying it “takes the wind out of your sails when you realize you haven't found it that week.”
At this point -- and at this level of performance -- talk of a possible Chase berth is premature at best and ridiculous at worst. At this rate, he is closer to losing his Chase eligibility by plummeting outside the Top-30 in points than he is to qualifying for the postseason.
Reminded of a storybook 2011 campaign that saw him stagger into the championship Chase, then catch fire and win five of the final 10 races en route to the title, Stewart delivered a brief dose of optimism.
“If we win a race because we have our car working well, it definitely can turn the season around,” he said. “With this format, it can change everything. That's your reason not to give up. That's your reason to keep fighting every week and show up at the track with the same attitude you did the week before. You can go out there, win the race (and) get everything going."
Longtime Stewart fans can only hope that’s the case.