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Driver embraces challenge to pull out of season's slump


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Standing in his Columbus garage Tuesday between his 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship car and a winged sprint car, Tony Stewart talked about one of his frustrations as he tries to pull out of the most trying stretch of his racing career.

“I’m not an engineer,” he said, pointing at the Chevrolet he used to win the 2011 Cup championship. “I don’t have a college degree.”

Stewart said advanced technology plays such a huge role in NASCAR racing that drivers are limited to offering mostly feedback to how their cars respond to the changes that are made. Looking over at the winged sprint car, Stewart noted that it used to be that he could help with mechanical alterations himself. That’s not needed with more than 160 employees at Stewart-Haas Racing in Kannapolis, N.C.

 

But whether or not Stewart can design a suspension system that will increase his car’s grip on the track, being a NASCAR team owner along with Gene Haas, he eventually is responsible for all the decisions that are made.

So far with the new Generation 6 car, which NASCAR said is closer to the vehicles that the general public buys off the showroom floor, his team has struggled.

This is the first time in Stewart’s 15 Sprint Cup seasons that he has gone seven consecutive races without a top 10 finish. He is 22nd in the standings and in danger of missing the Chase.

He has 15 races, after Saturday’s event in Darlington, S.C., to turn things around.

“It’s been like a bad dream,” Stewart said about his NASCAR season to this point. “One gigantic, bad dream.”

That being said, Stewart isn’t crying and smashing his head into the dashboard. He has embraced the challenge of turning things around.

“It’s supposed to be challenging or everyone would be able to do it,” Stewart said of finding the right set-up to put cars on the lead of a NASCAR race. “It’s just part of figuring out a new car. We have good people in the right positions.”

While the Stewart-Haas team, which includes drivers Ryan Newman (17th in the standings) and Danica Patrick (27th) has struggled, Stewart is confident things are about to turn around.

“We’ve never not been successful in anything we’ve done,” Stewart said. “We’re not going to start now. We know what we are capable of doing.”

Stewart met this week with Greg Zipadelli, his team’s “competition director” and the former crew chief of his first two Cup championships, to search for ideas.

“We all have our heads going in the right direction,” Stewart said. “But we’ve struggled everywhere. We have to figure out what set-up (the car) wants.

“I honestly think this is going to be bigger than anything we’ve done. It will be bigger than our three championships. This could be the biggest accomplishment this organization ever has had. It will define what our organization is all about.”

Obviously, Stewart is tightening the screws on every member of his organization, including himself.

“The honeymoon is over,” he said. “We’re going to work harder than we’ve ever had to work.”

Working hard has been a way of life for Stewart, who will race 38 Sprint Cup races this year and 70 winged sprint car races along with his many business and philanthropic endeavors. He spent a couple of days in his hometown this week to commemorate the addition of new playground equipment to parks in Columbus that he helped to make possible with funding. He also will use one of his only off days in July to commit to racing a three-quarter midget car at the 4-H Fairgrounds in Columbus on July 9.

“You have to make the time,” he said.

With so much work going into righting the Stewart-Haas Racing ship, Stewart was asked if he feels bad leaving to race winged sprints.

“I might not be at the shop, but with the technology we have, I can be at a meeting with Skype or on the speaker phone,” he said. “I’m always stressed out, and just busy. (Racing winged sprint cars) is my release. I love doing that.”

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