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Tony Stewart on his tough season, being home and Brian France’s presence

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts - Practice

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts - Practice

Sarah Crabill

Tony Stewart took lots of questions Tuesday about his mediocre season in NASCAR, but the driver and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing essentially had one answer.

He can’t put a finger on why he is off to the worst start of his Sprint Cup career.

“Honestly, I don’t know that because I haven’t figured it out,” said Stewart, who has only one top 10 (sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway) at the midpoint of the 36-race schedule. “It’s a scenario that when you drive for so long, you’re used to one thing. Coming into this year and taking the amount of horsepower they took out was a pretty radical change for the Cup Series.

“I think it was more the horsepower reduction than it was anything that I feel like has hurt me this year. I’ve grown up driving high‑horsepower cars, high power‑to‑weight ratio cars. This hasn’t been what I’m used to feeling.”

NASCAR stripped about 125 horsepower from its cars this season while also reducing downforce. In last Saturday’s race at Kentucky Speedway, a decreased spoiler meant even less downforce, but it still brought a similar result for Stewart, who finished 33rd.

Speaking with the news media, Stewart said he likes crew chief Chad Johnston and doesn’t hold him responsible for the struggles of the No. 14 Chevrolet.

“I don’t feel like he’s what’s holding us back,” he said. “There’s something about the way this package is that just doesn’t suit my driving style.

“I’m holding him and the team back. So it’s just a matter of me trying to figure it out, figure out how to go forward and get our cars better.”

Stewart’s Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, will play host to its third annual Camping World Truck Series event next week before the Columbus, Ind., native heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to compete at his hometown Brickyard 400.

“It’s two weeks coming up that I really look forward to, honestly,” he said.

That was among the few times Stewart’s mood brightened during the 30-minute conference call. Another was when he was asked where he thought NASCAR was making its greatest strides, Stewart said it was the collaboration within the industry, citing interaction with the recently formed driver’s council and last year’s Race Team Alliance (Stewart is affiliated with both).

“If I had to look and say what I thought was the greatest thing, it’s seeing NASCAR as a whole work with the teams and the drivers and be more accommodating as far as having the Drivers Council, the RTA,” he said. “That’s something in the 17 years I’ve been in the Cup Series I’ve never seen.

“It was all right to walk in the trailer and give them an idea, and that’s as far as it always went. Now you’re actually having meetings, working hand‑in‑hand with NASCAR. I think that’s something that I’ve never seen in this sport, which to me is really exciting as a driver and owner. I think it’s great.

“As far as the flip side of that, I really don’t know what the answer is for that. But I definitely think that seeing NASCAR’s involvement on the more personal side, I’d love to see Brian France show up at some of these council meetings and stuff, but I’m sure he’s busy.”

Other highlights from Stewart’s interview heading into Sunday’s 5 Hour Energy 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway:

Q: New Hampshire is a track that you had some success (three wins). What is your mindset coming into this race?

STEWART: “Honestly, we’re just kind of trying to get our program back on track. I don’t know that we’ve circled any track and said anything right now. It’s been a disappointing year up to this point. It seems like no matter what the package is, we seem to fight the same balance. So we’re desperately trying to figure out what it’s going to take to move the needle, I guess, so to speak. You hope you get it done at a race like the Brickyard, for sure. The big thing is trying to figure out what’s going on and trying to find out what we got to do to move the needle a little bit.”

Q: What was your take on the rules changes at Kentucky and what effect will it have on the season?

STEWART: “Well, I think honestly I’m not sure I’m the best judge of it. We’re fighting the handling of our car so bad right now that I’m not sure I’m a real good judge of it. It was a pretty considerable change package‑wise going into this weekend. Balance‑wise my car didn’t change. I think there’s guys that could tell you a lot more accurately about what the feel of it was better than I could at this point because we weren’t close enough to getting our car driving good to really understand it.

Q: In 2011, you had such a dynamic improvement during the Chase (winning five of 10 races). Do you see any signs that you could have a similar improvement over the second half of this year or do you see more the improvements being more gradual?

STEWART: Honestly, when we had the improvements in 2011, it literally was overnight. I didn’t see that coming obviously then. So to tell you whether it’s going to be gradual or all at once, that’s hard to say, as well. To me, I don’t care how we get there. I don’t care if it takes one week or if it takes six weeks to get there, the main thing is just getting there. We’re going to keep working hard and keep pushing to try to find that. With the way this format is, all it takes is one good race for us to get in. If we can find whatever it is that we’ve been missing, one race can change our whole season. That’s the driving force every week.

Q: With the Brickyard being such a special place for you, are you excited about going there and racing at home? Or when you’re struggling, is there some dread?

STEWART: Well, I don’t think it’s any secret to anybody that we’re struggling. So, you’re always excited to race at home. I’m always excited to be at the Brickyard. That’s just a place that’s special to me. It’s disheartening that we’re not running good. But I guess it would be a ton worse if we were running really well and all of a sudden we got to the Brickyard and didn’t run well at the Brickyard. That would be worst‑case scenario. I think for us right now, we’ll still work as hard as we can to get the best result we can get out of it.

Q: From an ownership standpoint, do you believe that NASCAR is headed in the right direction with these rules packages?

STEWART: Yeah, anything that’s going to make the fans happier, put better races on is in all of our best interests. The part that’s hard for the teams is the process. Changing this, changing that. All that cost comes out of our pockets. It doesn’t come out of NASCAR’s pocket. NASCAR decides they want to change something, we’re the ones that have to spend the money to do it. They don’t spend a dime to do it. That’s the part that’s hard. I think all of the owners will do whatever’s in the best interest of making it better. I just would like to see NASCAR share some of that expense vs. saying, ‘Hey, we got an idea, we want to try this, then the teams have to spend all the money to do it.’

Q: Jeff Gordon announced he’s retiring at the end of this year, which seems to be a little bit younger than some other drivers. On the other end of the scale, you have Mark Martin racing till he was in his early 50s. When you look at your career and your future, how much longer do you see yourself doing this?

STEWART: Right now I’m just trying to figure out how to get my car working, to be honest with you.