Tony Stewart entered 2015 full of optimism, ready to put two straight years of personal and professional hell behind him.
A lackluster season, though, has eroded Stewart's confidence and left him searching for solutions. Through 18 races he's registered just one top-10 finish, sits an abysmal 28th in the standings, has led all of 14 laps and if he fails to win in the next eight races, will miss the Chase for the Sprint Cup for a third straight year.
"The whole year's been frustrating," Stewart said during a teleconference Tuesday. "It just seems like everywhere we go, we seem to fight the same balance.
"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. Just seems like the further we go into the year, the more frustrating that gets, too."
The main culprit for why Stewart is struggling is a driving style more conducive to high horsepower cars, which he's familiar with having spent extensive time competing in sprint-cars and 17 seasons in NASCAR's premier division. But NASCAR significantly reduced engine power over the season and Stewart hasn't been able to adapt, a fact he attributes heavily to an average finish of 25th, 12 positions higher than his career mark.
"It's a scenario that when you drive for so long, you're used to one thing," Stewart said. "Coming into this year and taking the amount of horsepower they took out was a pretty radical change for the Cup Series. I think it was more the horsepower reduction than it was anything that I feel like has hurt me this year. I've grown up driving high-horsepower cars, high power-to-weight ratio cars. This hasn't been what I'm used to feeling."
Stewart said the team he co-owns, Stewart-Haas Racing, is "desperately trying to figure out" how to improve his performance. Teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch each have a pair of victories this season and are the only two drivers with average finishes in the single digits (Harvick's is seventh, Busch's is ninth), indicating SHR is capable of constructing race-winning cars.
That has led to speculation about the job security of Chad Johnston, Stewart's crew chief. But he defends Johnston, saying the problem is with himself and not the team.
"I still really like working with Chad Johnston," Stewart said. "I don't feel like he's what's holding us back. There's something about the way this package is that just doesn't suit my driving style. I'm holding him and the team back versus vice versa."
The pronounced slump follows Stewart, 44, breaking his right leg two years ago and being involved in the death of another racer last summer. And with Jeff Gordon, 42, retiring at the end of the season, some have wondered whether Stewart may do the same. He was asked if he's considered the possibility Tuesday.
"Right now, I'm just trying to figure out how to get my car working, to be honest with you," Stewart said.
While he has never been in a dry spell of this magnitude before, Stewart did go winless during the 2011 regular season and barely earned a Chase spot.
However, once the playoffs began, the issues that hampered the No. 14 team disappeared and Stewart became a force. The owner-driver won the first two Chase races and five of 10 overall to secure a third Cup Series title.
That improbable championship run four years ago gives faith another turnaround is possible.
"To me, I don't care how we get there," Stewart. "I don't care if it takes one week or if it takes six weeks to get there, the main thing is just getting there. We're going to keep working hard and keep pushing to try to find that.
"If we can find whatever it is that we've been missing, one race can change our whole season. That's the driving force every week."