Tony Stewart has never started off a season exceptionally well. Sure, he's had some good finishes in the early part of the year, but the reality is just one of his 44 career Sprint Cup victories have come in the months of February or March.
Thus far, the 2012 season two races in is no different for Stewart, as the defending series champion opened the year with a16th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and followed that up by finishing 22nd last Sunday in Phoenix.
However, those mediocre results mask just how competitive Stewart has been.
Throughout Speedweeks, the No. 14 Chevy was a constant presence up front among the race leaders. Stewart finished a very close second to Kyle Busch in the non-points Budweiser Shootout, won his Gatorade Duel qualifying race and in the Daytona 500 was very much in line for a top-10 and possible win before getting caught up in an accident not of his own doing.
Stewart had just as good of a car last weekend on the one-mile Phoenix oval, as throughout the race he was a fixture in the top 10. Unfortunately, an electrical gremlin surfaced, preventing him from re-firing his car after he had shut off his engine in an effort to save fuel.
Later, Stewart would learn a breaker had short-circuited unbeknownst to him – a direct byproduct of NASCAR's switch this season to the new electronic fuel injection system.
"They told me when I flipped the switch back on it didn't start, which I already knew," Stewart said Friday. "I didn't ask any more questions. ... I don't need to know about electronics too much. If I can't see it work, I don't get too interested in it."
By the time his team did figure out the problem, Stewart was two laps down and ended the day 22nd.
As a result, the owner/driver finds himself 15th in the standings heading into this weekend's event in Las Vegas and once again staring up at quite a few drivers above him in the championship order. It's certainly not an insurmountable hole to climb out of this early in the season, and by no means an unfamiliar position for Stewart who is accustomed to coming out of the gate slowly.
One thing Stewart is not doing is looking back about his decision last fall to replace then-crew chief Darian Grubb at the end of the year.
Any lingering bitterness there may be between Stewart and Grubb is nonexistent, according Stewart. In fact, Stewart was among the first to congratulate Grubb last Sunday when he won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 with his new driver, Denny Hamlin.
Grubb's replacement at Stewart-Haas Racing is Steve Addington, who used to work with Stewart at the driver's previous employer, Joe Gibbs Racing. While the two have shown promise working with one another, the chemistry between driver and crew chief is still a work in progress. Nonetheless, Stewart feels a big step was taken over the past week.
"The great thing is that Steve and I got to spend some time together this week," Stewart said. "It was fun to go from Phoenix to here. A lot of the crew guys stayed out and we all got to spend time together as a team. When you have a new team leader like that, it's important for myself and for all the guys to try and spend as much time with each other as we can and for all of us to get to know him a little better and for him to get to know his guys."
In spite of Las Vegas Motor Speedway being one of three tracks he has never won on before – Darlington and Kentucky are the others – Stewart has had success on the 1.5-mile track in the past. That includes last year, when he led a race-high 163 laps and finished runner-up to Carl Edwards as a late-race penalty for dragging an air hose out of his pit box negated any chance Stewart had to contend for the win.
"I'm excited about (returning to Las Vegas)," Stewart said. "This was probably in all reality was the strongest race that we had last year. We had a car that just was dominant and we still let it get away from us. It was real disappointing to lose it with a penalty last year."