Can Tony Stewart Actually Contend in 2016?

Jordan McAbeeNASCAR News, News

Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick in the garage

Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick in the garageBy Jordan McAbee

The 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was one of the most story-filled years in recent memory. It all started with Kurt Busch being suspended, and then his brother Kyle Busch breaking his leg soon after (and the day before the season-opening Daytona 500).

On top of all that, we saw the now infamous feud between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano, and let’s not forget about the fact that we saw a legend go out (almost) on top, with Jeff Gordon making the final round of the Chase, only to finish 3rd to the aforementioned Kyle Busch, who took home the Sprint Cup championship.

Squeezed in between all of this was Tony Stewart’s announcement that he would be retiring after the 2016 Sprint Cup season, which will be his 18th full-time season. “Smoke” clarified during his press conference that is was 100% his decision, although you have to wonder whether or not his on-track performance–or rather lack thereof–was the actual deciding factor.

A Broken & Changed Man

First let’s flash back to 2011, when Tony Stewart went on one of the most impressive runs I’ve ever seen to end a season, winning three of the last four races to tie Carl Edwards for the Sprint Cup championship. Via tiebreaker, “Smoke” took home his third series championship while “Cousin Carl” was left with nothing. The next season, Tony had a pretty good year, going to victory lane three times and ending up 9th in the points standings.

It all went downhill after that, though. The 2013 season was already pretty rocky for Tony Stewart before it was announced that he broke his leg in a sprint car crash in early August. He was sidelined for the rest of the season, and “Smoke” wound up with an average finish of 16.1 — his worst since joining the series full time in 1999.

Tony Stewart press conference to announce retirementIn 2014, it didn’t get much better for Tony Stewart, who once again wound up with a career-worst average finish (20th) over 33 total Sprint Cup Series starts, and zero wins, a first for him in his entire Cup career. The reason he missed three races, as we all remember, was because of the death of Kevin Ward that happened.

And between the broken leg and that accident, it’s blatantly obvious that Tony Stewart hasn’t been the same contending driver that we had come to know.

An Overlooked 2015

With all of the stories and focus on other drivers during the 2015 campaign, it was easy to overlook Tony Stewart’s struggles. But let’s be honest: it was almost sad. Once again, for the second time ever in his impressive career, “Smoke” never made it to victory lane, and his average finish of 24.8 was once again a career low. Stewart only led 24 total laps during the entire 2015 season, something he routinely accomplished in one race in previous years.

It wasn’t uncommon to see Tony Stewart’s #14 Chevrolet multiple laps down on a weekly basis. He finished outside of the top 20 in 23 of the 36 races in 2015, a statistic that is more likely to be seen associated with the likes of Casey Mears and other mid-tier organizations–not a NASCAR mammoth like Stewart-Haas Racing. So with that in mind, it begs the question…

What can we expect from Tony Stewart in 2016?

Tony Stewart racing Chris Buescher at Texas 2015If the 2016 season goes anything like the 2015 campaign, it will be a very disappointing end to a very impressive career for Tony Stewart. However, it’s hard to imagine that happening. The #14 team was literally one of the worst in the Sprint Cup Series last season, and that’s not exaggerating. Of those drivers who competed in all of the races last year, only four were worse: Trevor Bayne, Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, and David Gilliland.

From a team perspective, the major change coming for the #14 crew in 2016 is a new crew chief in Michael Bugarewicz. He was previously the race engineer for Kevin Harvick’s crew. Many Tony Stewart fans blamed his struggles in 2015 on previous crew chief Chad Johnston, so having a new leader may do “Smoke” some good.

Still, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the three-time Sprint Cup champion has been on a downward trend for a few years now. While I hope that Tony Stewart competes for the championship in his final season in NASCAR’s top series, I just don’t see that as very likely. Possible, yes, but nowhere near a high possibility. However, with NASCAR’s playoff system the way it is, all it takes is one win in the “regular season” for Tony Stewart, and you never know which team will get hot when the playoffs start…

UPDATE: It was announced on February 4, 2016 that Tony Stewart suffered a fractured vertebrae and will miss the start of the 2016 Sprint Cup season. There is no timeline for his return at this time. Meanwhile, the injury just adds to the already difficult season ahead for “Smoke.” We did see with Kyle Busch in 2015, though, that a driver can suffer a major injury and come back to win the championship.