Saturday, September 3, 2011

Stewart calmly facing jobs at Atlanta

So conditions were just right for Tony Stewart to be a snarling wolf, right? Coming off the lousiest weekend of what for him has been a lousy summer? Being nagged about what's wrong with his team and about how work is coming along toward Danica Patrick's Cup debut next season?

Prepare for the bear, huh?

Wouldn't you know he would be mellow, positive, pleasant?

That's "Smoke," all right. Mr. Paradox. It's when he's winning that he lashes out at NASCAR and track promoters. It's when he's running near the front, narrowly missing wins, that he slices into the media with sarcasm.

When he's slumping, he's cool.

And so it went Friday, as Stewart prepared for Sunday's AdvoCare 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), the last race of what used to be his best time of year, the hottest stretch of summer with the slickest racetracks.

Danica preparations are going smoothly, thank you, having long since been planned. And yes indeed, Mark Martin would be Stewart's man to drive the Cup races Danica doesn't, if Stewart can find sponsorship for Martin.

Stewart's usually hot time has come and almost gone, and he's still on track for the first winless season of his Cup career, coming off a champion's provisional start and a 28th-place finish at Bristol, Tenn., last week.

"I can't say that I'm ecstatic with where we're at," he admitted, but in a matter-of-fact tone.

Thing is, he was winless going into the Labor Day weekend event at Atlanta Motor Speedway last season, and he won the race.

"It was the same thing as what we're fighting for this weekend," he said. So this current slump is no worse than a tie -- "this is the longest I think we've gone into a season without a win."

And slick-track season isn't over, not at Atlanta, still deep in the long, hot summer of the Deep South.

"I think we're still in it," Stewart said of his time of year. "Obviously we haven't had that big run that we typically have this time of year."

How much can really translate from a win a year ago to now here?

"The good thing is, we are on the same tire that we won on here last year," he said. But, "as much as I would like to say we can put the same setup on and have the same result, unfortunately technology changes between when we won here last year and now. So what we had won't be good enough. We'll have to try to make it better.

"It's at least somewhat comforting knowing we have a package that worked last year and we have an idea of what we need to compete with."

Doesn't Sunday night amount to a last-ditch race for him?

"I don't think so. We're still 21 points to the good of where we need to be [hanging in at the Chase cutoff points position of 10th, 21 points ahead of 11th]. We're in the spot we need to be in; we just need to maintain it," he said.

Still, "obviously if we had a win this weekend, we wouldn't have to worry about it next week [at Richmond in the last race of regular season]. So it would be a luxury to win the race this week, but it's not a necessity …

"Everybody keeps saying last-ditch and we have to make something happen. We don't have to make anything happen. We're in the spot we're supposed to be in."

But still winless. He has never had a goose-egg season in the Cup wins column. Does he allow himself to prepare for such a thing?

He chuckled.

"How do you prepare to try not to have that happen?" he said. "There's never any guarantees. … It would definitely be disappointing. … We've kept a pretty good record for the last 12 years in a row of at least winning one race a year. … If we don't win a race, it's not going to be the end of the world and it's not going to be a disaster, but it definitely would be a streak that I would hate to see come to an end."

Some still wonder whether being a team owner the past three seasons has hurt his focus as a driver, but "it really doesn't," he said. "I learned from Joe [Gibbs, his former team owner] a long time ago that you hire the right people to do the right jobs and put the right people in the right positions, and you can focus on other things."

Speaking of the right people, in the 11 races since his competition director, Bobby Hutchens, departed by mutual consent in June, Stewart has only four top-10 finishes.

Any regrets?

"We were struggling before then, but we definitely miss him," Stewart said. "Bobby was a big, big variable in helping get Stewart-Haas Racing to what it is, and I miss him as a friend."

As it is, "We need a competition director now for sure. That definitely would be a big factor in helping things get going."

Engineer Matt Borland is currently juggling that position along with special projects and other roles at SHR.

Although Stewart admitted he "absolutely" has to play an active role in preparing to bring Danica aboard the team, "This has been talked about for months before it was announced, so the preparation has already started and there's been a lot of long meetings saying, 'Are we capable of doing this? What changes do we have to make?' That ball was already in motion, so it's not an added distraction."

As for Martin driving the Cup races Danica doesn't for Stewart, "I would love to have him," Stewart said. "The biggest thing is us getting the financial backing to run the remainder of those races. I would love nothing more than Mark in all the races that Danica doesn't run next year.

So pending sponsorship, Martin is his man? "He would be the leading candidate right now for sure," Stewart said.

So there you had it, Smoke all mild and mellow.

But knowing him, should he win Sunday night, well … prepare for the bear again.

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