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NASCAR Season Preview: Tony Stewart

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing

Born: May 20, 1971

Home: Columbus, Indiana

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: In one of the most entertaining Chases ever, Stewart took five race wins, including the final one at Homestead after falling to the back of the field twice, to score his third career Sprint Cup championship. It was the first win for an owner-driver since the late Alan Kulwicki’s similarly dramatic championship in 1992, and it came down to a tiebreaker: after tying Carl Edwards in points through 36 races, Smoke’s five wins bested Edwards’ one.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Stewart backed his way into the Chase, failing to score any victories in the first 26 races of the season. He then made the decision to can crew chief Darian Grubb for 2012, a decision that he did not retract after winning the title.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Matching his torrid Chase pace from last season seems out of the question for Stewart, now that the motivation (the embarrassment of making the Chase without scoring any race wins) and the engineer (crew chief Darian Grubb, now leading Stewart’s former teammate, Denny Hamlin) are gone. In Grubb’s place will be Steve Addington, who’s crew chiefed both Busch brothers at different times in his career. Stewart also welcomes Greg Zipadelli, the crew chief for his first two championships, to Stewart-Haas Racing as the team’s competition director.

It’s strange to see so much change at a championship-winning team, but Stewart isn’t one to rest on his laurels. He’ll still be plenty motivated, just by the desire to repeat, not by the desire to validate his team’s worthiness in the Chase. His decision to let a key member of his championship-winning team go is incredibly risky, but not completely out of character for this generation’s answer to A.J. Foyt; if everything isn’t perfect, it’s not good enough. Stewart will hold his team to a high enough standard that they’ll have a real shot at repeating in 2012.

– Chris Leone

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