Tony Stewart would love for his surprise win at Dover Sunday to be a statement that No. 14 is back and regularly ready to compete. The three-time series champion could then use the spray of the Victory Lane Budweiser as the detergent wiping away all of the bad cars and poor races he's endured in the first four months of the 2013 season.
But Stewart, now in his 15th Sprint Cup season, knows dynamics in NASCAR don't flip like a light switch. He knows that the seventh-place finish he recorded in the Coca-Cola 600 served as the end of the worst eight-race stretch in his career. He knows his self-owned Stewart-Haas Racing team is still working to find the right efficiencies and cohesiveness to make a now three-car team with rookie Danica Patrick as strong as last year's full-time two-car team.
And Stewart knows that getting to that point, regardless of where the derailment occurred, can be a long, drawn-out affair that not even a Sprint Cup race win can speed up or solve.
"It literally is a process, at least in my opinion, my view, it's a process of elimination," Stewart said after the Dover win. "You eliminate a variable at a time until you finally narrow it down to a group of possibilities of what the problem is, and that's something that (SHR) has done and been doing and we are still in the process of doing."
Dover showed that Stewart, his crew chief Steve Addington and SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli have made worthwhile gains in that process, and that the rest of 2013 for Stewart likely isn't going to look like what we've already seen. No, the rest of the year won't be dazzling and free of imperfection. But things are looking up for Stewart.
This season's struggles for Stewart took hold at Bristol when he cut a tire on Lap 10. A 31st-place finish started that career-worst eight-race streak in which No. 14 finished 15th or lower in every start. Mechanical issues weren't to blame for many of the poor finishes. Instead, Stewart just lacked raw speed—especially at the tracks important to NASCAR's title fight come this fall. In successive finishes at Martinsville, Texas, Kansas and Richmond, Stewart was 17th, 21st, 21st and 18th, respectively.
Will Tony Stewart make the Chase?
Strides, however, were made in the two weeks at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May for the series' All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600. He limped to a poor, non-competitive showing in the All-Star event but reeled in his first top 10 since February in the 600. Stewart said after the race that a pit road adjustment late in the race brought the handling of his car to life.
"I hope it transfers, I hope we can go back and put the science to the feel and if we can do that, then I think we can apply it to more stuff that we're doing with these cars,'' Stewart told Motor Racing Network after Charlotte.
At Dover—a track where SHR had previously used one of its limited open-testing allotments to hopefully sort through some handling issues and get a jump start on the competition—the race weekend started without the testing information or the Charlotte success transferring. A slow car in practice forced Addington to take a shot in the dark in making big changes on the car before the race. Obviously, they paid off for Stewart.
The team now hopes Dover is a microcosm of the 2013 season: perform bad at the start, make some smart adjustments as a fix and then, eventually, rise to the top.
The fact that Stewart has already been through a career-worst streak so recently and managed to get a car competitive enough at Dover to sweep in late and grab the win tells us plenty about the resolve of that team.
No, 2013 won't be perfect from here. But Stewart, so good both in the summer months and when the chips are stacked the highest against him, has reached his lowest point. His Dover win has made him a solid choice for at least a chase for the Sprint Cup at-large berth, and the strides his teams might be worth more.
The first half of 2013 for Stewart may have felt like a lost cause; don't expect the second to feel the same.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter @GeoffreyMiller.
This story used quotes from NASCAR's 6/2/13 press conference transcript from Dover International Speedway.