Watching a champion go out quietly is always difficult in any sport. That seems to be where we might be right now in NASCAR when it comes to Tony Stewart. But this weekend at Michigan International Speedway could be the time for Stewart to show he can still compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
When Jeff Gordon announced at the beginning of this season that it would be his last one full-time in the Sprint Cup Series, many expected Stewart to make a similar announcement. The announcement still hasn’t come, but it is easy to see why some thought that Stewart should consider hanging up the firesuit.
It feels like an eternity since the three-time series champion last won the title, even though it was in 2011. And the last couple of seasons have been beyond difficult. Stewart missed the final 15 races in 2013 after breaking a leg in a sprint car crash as he was sitting 11th in the Sprint Cup Series standings. In the 10 races before the injury, Stewart had one win, five top-5s and seven top-10s. That win is the last time Stewart has found victory lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Stewart was never really able to get going in 2014, finishing with just two top-5s and six top-10s in the first 21 races of the season. And then came another huge accident in a sprint car. This time, Stewart missed three races following the accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park that resulted in the death of Kevin Ward Jr. Since returning to the track following the accident at Canandaigua, Stewart has just one top-5 and two top-10s in 26 races, including only a single top-10 finish in the first 14 races this season.
It has been difficult to watch the now 44-year-old driver limp around the track lately, as he has finished 30th or worse six times in 2015 and 20th or better just five times. He currently sits 27th in the Sprint Cup Series standings, behind drivers like Casey Mears, Austin Dillon, David Gilliland and teammate Danica Patrick.
One positive for Stewart is that he returns to a track this weekend that has been pretty good to him over the years. In 30 career races at Michigan, Stewart has one win, 12 top-5s and 20 top-10s. Those are the second-most top-5s (New Hampshire, 14) and top-10s (Pocono, 22) at any track in Stewart’s career.
In the last 11 races that Stewart has run at Michigan, he has finished in the top-5 six times, while coming home in the top-10 on 11 occasions plus an 11th-place finish in this race last season. He missed the second race at Michigan last season after the Canandaigua accident.
While Stewart has just the one win at Michigan, he doesn’t really need a win to get his season turned around (even if it would help get him into the Chase for the Sprint Cup). What he needs is a solid run that results in at least a top-10, if not a top-5. And if there is a track that will be able to help Stewart produce that kind of a finish, it just might be Michigan.
As racing fans, we should be rooting for Stewart to figure it out. Because watching a champion go out without even a whimper would be just too much to take.