It's a well-known fact in the racing world that no matter the type of vehicle Tony Stewart is in, not only will he race the wheels off of it, he'll win. He's an IROC champion (2006), an IndyCar champion (1997), a winner in everything from ARCA and World of Outlaws to Nationwide and Camping World Truck competition, and, most importantly, a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion (2002, 2005, 2011).
Yet, after nine races in 2014, Stewart sits 15th in points, with only two top-fives and four top-10s to show for it.
His 2014 season has gone better than the beginning of his 2013 season, where after nine races he sat 21st in points, with a single eighth-place finish at Phoenix for his troubles. He would go on to finish 29th in points in 2013, with a win at Dover in June the highlight of what was otherwise a dismal season that ended prematurely due to an injury suffered at a World of Outlaws race in August.
However, prior to the accident that ended Stewart's 2013 season, it was clear that something was amiss in the Stewart-Haas Racing camp. His win at Dover was salve to what was shaping up to be his worst season yet, but his win came as a result of excellent pit strategy and good luck, thanks to Jimmie Johnson's penalty on a late restart. Stewart only led three laps on the way to victory.
2014 has been just a little bit kinder to the SHR group, as the two newest additions, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, have recorded three victories this season (Busch - Martinsville, Harvick - Las Vegas, Darlington). But Harvick's success aside, whatever good luck that the SHR entries may have had this season has been the result of excellent strategy.
Stewart's two top-fives (fourth at Bristol and fifth at Fontana) were the result of excellent strategies. At Bristol, Stewart started 37th and had one of the slowest cars on the track, constantly running laps in the 15-second range. But due to strategy and attrition, Stewart had a legitimate shot to win in the end.
At Fontana, Stewart suffered an early spin and dropped to the rear of the field. However, as the laps ticked away, he entered the top-20 by lap 100 and, thanks to the constant adjustments, he had made it to 12th by lap 199. Due to excellent pit strategy setting up for the green-white-checkered, Stewart restarted third and fought Busch for the lead before being shuffled to fifth.
But although Stewart was in contention for those wins, he's been more of a mid-pack fixture in 2014. He just hasn't been as fast as he usually is. It isn't a matter of his broken leg, as that has healed and he has shown improvement in 2014, but it's easy to see that SHR may have a full plate with four drivers.
For example, despite his victory at Martinsville, Busch's only other top-five was a third at Fontana. After that, the next highest finish for Busch in 2014 is a 21st at Daytona. He currently sits 25th in points. Meanwhile, Danica Patrick has a season-high finish of 14th at Fontana and sits 29th in points with only two lead-lap finishes.
An argument can be made about Patrick's struggles not only being an issue with SHR but, for former champions Stewart and Busch, their abilities behind the wheel do not match with how their 2014 is going, especially Stewart. Busch, who took a one-car team in Furniture Row Racing to the playoffs last season, should be faring better in 2014, but he isn't.
It could be that the SHR organization, a team better suited for two cars, is floundering thanks to the extra load. That shouldn't be the case due to the talent level that all four teams possess, yet the team has suffered everything from broken parts to lack of speed.
This isn't what Stewart needs. From 2009 to 2012, the No. 14 Chevrolet was in constant Chase contention and won 14 times. But during those seasons, SHR only housed two cars, with the No. 39 of Ryan Newman also winning races and making the Chase for the Sprint Cup multiple times. It wasn't until they added Patrick's full-time entry in 2013 that everything went south for Stewart.
It's only speculation at this point, but the addition of Busch hasn't done much to better the fortunes of SHR. As a result, while Harvick seems to be the lone SHR driver with a chance at the championship, everyone else has been lacking.
Stewart is an amazing driver and SHR is a strong organization that has just happened to have a bad run of luck. Stewart has had slow starts before, and considering there have only been nine races in 2014, there is every likelihood of the No. 14 visiting the Winner's Circle multiple times and making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He can contend again, but unless SHR makes some much-needed changes, Stewart may remain second fiddle.