Tony Stewart is a three-time champion in the Sprint Cup Series, so 2013 has been unfamiliar territory for him. He's had dismal years in the past, but with one win, four top-fives and six top-10s after 19 races, 2013 has been Stewart's least productive year to date.
The problem isn't because of the new addition in rookie Danica Patrick. Equipment assistance from Hendrick Motorsports isn't to blame, as Stewart-Haas Racing does all of its own setups. Stewart and fellow SHR driver Ryan Newman get along together just fine, so there is no lack of communication there.
Yet somehow, someway, the No. 14 crew has been utterly devoid of speed this season. For example, after 19 races in 2012, Stewart had three wins, eight top-fives and nine top-10s, thus placing him seventh in points. Sure, he wasn't in the top five in points or anything truly eye-opening, but it was something that the No. 14 was at least familiar with.
After 19 events in 2013, however, Stewart has one win, four top-fives and six top-10s, putting him 13th in points. He's in Wild Card contention and could possibly make the Chase, but no driver wants to be in that position in the first place.
In the first 11 races, Stewart's highlight was an eighth-place finish at Phoenix in the second race of the season. Although he's had trouble such as a big wreck in the Daytona 500 (where he finished 41st) and a cut tire and a spin on the ninth lap at Bristol (where he finished 31st), he's yet to gain a DNF this year. And while he hasn't necessarily stayed at the back of the pack, he's had 14 lead-lap finishes this year, which goes to show that he's just been mediocre.
A seventh-place at Charlotte began a string of four top-10s, including his Dover win. It was looking like Stewart might be okay after all, but the No. 14 struggled at Sonoma with a couple of on-track incidents, including a late-race spin with Jeff Burton, before finishing 28th. It carried on to Kentucky the next week, where he finished 20th in a (once again) mediocre showing.
Without a doubt, Stewart's second-place finish at Daytona a couple of weeks ago lifted the spirits of those rooting for the No. 14. But then he fell back to 26th late in the going at New Hampshire. Such bad luck has graced Stewart's camp before, but it has never been this bad. Stewart has just never been this slow.
In racing, every heavyweight has had down years. Dale Earnhardt had a few bad seasons in the late 90s. Mark Martin had a horrid 2003 season in the No. 6 Ford. Even Jeff Gordon had a few bad seasons in the early 2000s. But looking at Gordon's 2012 season should give Stewart some hope.
With the exception of a 40th-place finish in the 2012 Daytona 500, which placed him 34th in points to begin the year, Gordon saw himself fighting to survive in an up-and-down first half of the season, which saw him get as low as 25th in points.
Yet he placed himself in contention for a Wild Card after a win at Pocono in the 21st race of the season. Had he not crashed at Phoenix in the penultimate race of the season, he would have finished in the top five in points.
Stewart could be on the verge of turning it around. Sonoma and Kentucky were just two races. He almost won at Daytona. And had there not been a late-race caution at New Hampshire, Stewart could have won his second race of the season.
Indianapolis is the next race on the schedule, and Stewart has won there twice. He has finished in the top 10 eight times in the last nine races at Indy.
So if anything, we'll get an indicator on whether or not Stewart will be contending for the championship or looking in from the outside.