Whenever you think of smoke, the first thing that usually comes to mind is a fire. And the bigger the fire, the bigger the smoke cloud usually is.
When Tony Stewart, who goes by the nickname “Smoke” first announced last season, that he would be taking over 50 percent of Haas CNC Racing.
The announcement sent a feeding frenzy around NASCAR nation, with many wondering if Smoke was making a mistake by leaving the confines of Joe Gibbs racing, for the more lucrative world of becoming a team owner.
Smoke, who had already won two championships while driving the No. 20 Home Depot sponsored race car, was questioned why he would buy into a team who’s drivers were sitting 36th and 44th in the owner standings, with no promise in the near future?
And when you look back it was easy to see that Toyota was showing a lot of promise, especially for only being a first year team.
Toyota would be very well represented with all three of their drivers in chase, along with Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway, and the powerhouse team of Hendrick Motorsports who also had three drivers in as well.
Life as seen from a fans point of view, couldn’t have been any better for this Columbus, Indiana native who was making headlines no matter which series he was involved in.
Smoke would endure question after question, why he would buy into a team that out on the race track was far below his own standards, especially when you look at the success he has with his other business ventures as well as his U.S.A.C. team.
Stewart Haas racing would start off the season on a bad note, when during practice for the season opening Daytona 500, Stewart’s teammate Ryan Newman blew a tire which resulted in both he and Stewart having to start the race in backup cars.
It wasn’t until the sixth race of the season at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Stewart would finally get his first top five finish, when he brought home his Old Spice/Office Depot sponsored Chevy to a third place finish.
And from there on the fire was lit as it would burn out of control while Smoke added another 12 top five series leading finishes, to go along with the three victories that he would also pick up along the way.
As the season progressed, so did the fire that burned within this young team, as they led the way for 13 weeks atop the point standings leading into the chase.
The chase as most of knows is whole different beast from the regular season, and it can become a horrible demon while sucking out the last breath of oxygen within a matter of a couple of weeks sending a young team into a dark abyss.
Just last season the No. 18 JGR Toyota team of Kyle Busch got the wind knocked out of them within the first three races, and they eventually settled for a 10th place finish while never gaining the composure that they had prior to the chase.
Going into the chase Busch was coming off of a very dominant season, and in the end would succumb to a very brief history lesson. A lesson that just might have followed Stewart into this season’s chase for the Sprint cup championship.
In the past five years since the chase has been run, only one team that has led the point standings going into the chase has come back and won the championship, and that was Stewart back in 2005.
But there were still four more that didn’t have the same outcome as Stewart, starting out with Jimmie Johnson in 2004, Matt Kenseth in 2006, and Jeff Gordon in 2007 that all finished second in points.
Kyle Busch was the only driver to finish out of the top five with a 10th place points finish. Darian Grubb, who is Stewarts’ crew chief, summed it up the best with this statement when talking about the problems the team has been having since Stewart’s last win at Watkins Glen.
"We are a new organization. We are going to have to fix all those problems and keep getting stronger. We have to assemble that car to the utmost of our abilities and we missed it."
Mistakes are also part of racing, and so far all that good luck that he had at the beginning of the season, could it finally be catching up to him?
A team can only go to the well so many times, and sooner or later it dries up. Morally these past few races where Stewart has had finishes of, 17th, 33rd, 11th, 17th, and 14th have to be taking there toll on this young team.
“The car came apart and we had to fix it so we gave up all that track position on pit road just to fix that and after that we struggled the rest of the day to get half-way through the field."
The key word here is that they struggled, and struggling is part of the adversity that all the teams have to fight through. Fighting through it is part of the ongoing growing pains, which separate the great teams from the everyday run of the mill I barely made it into the chase teams.
The chase demands perfection, as well as the consistency of a team working together in total harmony to overcome the obstacles as they come their way.
This is the time of the season when each team is stretched beyond their limits, because as we have seen in the past, the chase loves to demoralize the teams who think they are beyond a good dose of reality check.
And since no other first year team has ever won the chase, the battle will be even more furious for Stewart and crew to regain their composure, because in the end the rewards will be even sweeter.
The chase cannot be won by driver ability alone, and now is the time for the whole team to step up their game before time catches up and it becomes too late.
Stewart knows that feeling after watching his teammate last season slowly fall by the wayside, as all the other chasers passed him by with no remorse to problems that Busch was encountering.
Webster dictionary also defines smoke as, “the visible vapor and gases is given off by a burning or smoldering substance.“
With only nine weeks remaining and looking back to the past five races, something needs to be done before the rest of the season continues to smolder and the fire is completely out.
These just might be the last words that Darian Grubb speaks before next season begins.
"I haven't seen him yet. I'm sure he is upset, just as much as I am. He should be. We let him down.”