Sunday at Michigan was much needed for Tony Stewart. To say that the driver/co-owner of the No. 14 has struggled is a bit of an understatement; Aside from being sidelined multiple times due to injury since 2013, he hasn’t won a race since Dover in June of 2013 and has only scored seven top-fives (the last coming in October 2014 in Martinsville) and 20 top-10s since the 2013 Daytona 500.
He’s had plenty of good runs and good cars during that time. Pit strategy derailed him from winning at Pocono and June of 2014 and Indy in July 2015, while crashes sidelined him at Daytona in July of 2014 and Pocono in June 2016. He had a car capable of winning the Spring 2015 race at Talladega before being shuffled out of the draft. It hasn’t been for lack of effort from that team.
After qualifying third for Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400, Stewart ran in the top-five for most of the race. He never led a lap, but he was keeping pace with polesitter and race winner Joey Logano. When green flag pit stops were cycling through at halfway, he was shuffled back to 16th. But instead of fading or lingering in that area of the running order for the rest of the race, he made his way back to the front before settling for seventh.
After having such a strong run cap off a strong weekend, Stewart praised the new aero package, saying, “Love it. Absolutely love it. The package is good. The aero package is starting to catch up now.”
It’s only one race. It’s too early to say whether or not Stewart and his crew have turned a corner and will fall back into the old early summer groove he used to have, where he started reeling off wins and good finishes. That’s no longer the norm for the three-time Sprint Cup champion. These days the new normal is somewhere between 15th and 30th on a good day.
It’s doubtful he’ll win a race in 2016, and it’s doubtful he’ll make the Chase in his final year of competition. But it’s strong weekends like Michigan that build momentum, and time will tell if it carries on through the Summer stretch.