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Tony Stewart: Only the latest in a season of the strange

   Remember Matt Kenseth's Dover win in May? And the controversy over his post-race burnout.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   DOVER, Del.
   It's been just one of those weird years, Tony Stewart says.
   No kidding.
   Not just for Stewart either.

   Remember Trevor Bayne?
   Since then?
   Yes, Brad Keselowski has been the surprise. But what's going on inside teammate Kurt Busch's head? Another meltdown?
   Only two races into the 10-race NASCAR playoffs, heading into Sunday's Dover 400, and there are a lot of guys who have thrown in the towel and already lining up things for 2012, considering 2011 history.
   Where's Jamie McMurray been this season? And Juan Pablo Montoya?
   Denny Hamlin's nose-dive continues.
   Joey Logano still hasn't caught fire, nearly three years into this thing.
   Jeff Burton too MIA.
   Clint Bowyer, hit-or-miss, and now moving on  to another team at the end of the season.
   The Biff? Greg Biffle came close a few times, has had plenty of speed, but the team keeps misfiring.
   Mark Martin? Out of gas? Headed to Tony Stewart's next year as Danica Patrick's part-time teammate? Nobody's saying yet….maybe because the money's not yet there.
   And what the heck is going on over at Michael Waltrip's? After so many years his operation ought to be clicking, but it's not, except for a few hints from Martin Truex Jr.
   David Ragan too is a question mark, despite that Daytona win in July.
   And, hey, what about Carl Edwards?
   Yes, he started hot, won Las Vegas….but then, well, he's not really cooled off, but he's just not winning races. And this is a guy who won nine times in 2008.
    For Edwards, this Sunday's 400 may be his moment to regain momentum. Over the past three years he's averaged a very nice 6.1 finish at this concrete track.
   And what about the Sprint Cup tour leader here? Just how good a prognosticator is Tony Stewart, who just two weeks ago he wrote himself out of the chase, insisting he wasn't a solid contender.
   However at the moment, the stock car racing world appears to be revolving around Stewart, who has opened the playoffs with two straight wins.
   But will his luck, which began at Chicago and continued at Loudon, N.H., run out here this weekend?
   The pre-race line says yes: over the past six years or so, the Sprint Cup tour lead has led only six laps, and only once during that span has he been in contention down the stretch. His average finish the last three years has been a ragged 18th.
   And back in May this place was a disaster for him. He qualified poorly, ran poorly, finished six laps down.
   "Dover has been the track where we've struggled the most," Stewart concedes. "So I think that's the one that we have to look at and say 'This is one we have to figure out, and do better, if we're going to have a shot at this.'
    "We have to survive."
   As hot as Stewart has been lately, it's hard to reflect back to Bristol, barely a month ago, where Stewart had probably the low point of a lackluster season. He was the slowest qualifier in the field…while teammate Ryan Newman won the pole.
   That was stark.
   No one is saying much about what happened in the wake of that debacle, but something certainly changed.
   Then in victory Sunday Stewart offered an enigmatic quip that "We got rid of some deadweight earlier this week, and that's definitely helped. Sometimes you have to make some adjustments in your life."
   Darian Grubb, his crew chief, insists there have been no shakeups in the team, leaving everyone to speculate about just what Stewart might have been talking about.
   The year didn't really start out badly for Stewart. He was blowing away the field at Las Vegas in March, but got caught late by Carl Edwards.
   Then it seemed things started to sour. In June he shuffled his competition department, but things only got worse…on his side of the shop. Over on Newman's side, headed by Tony Gibson, things seemed good to go.
   Hence there has been considerable speculation that the Newman-Gibson guys and the Stewart-Grubb guys simply weren't using the same playbook.
   Speculation flew over the summer that Stewart wanted former crew chief Greg Zipadelli to leave the Joe Gibbs camp and move to Stewart's team at the end of the season.  In fact that speculation was riff at Bristol, with Stewart's fortunes flagging.
   Then sudden the rebound. Atlanta and Richmond both proved turnarounds. Now back to back wins.
   "We've had one of those years where we've been just been a little bit off, and weird things have happened," Stewart says. "Hopefully, we've got that bad luck behind us.
   "The last four weeks have been awesome. But we've got a tough hurdle ahead of us at Dover. We really struggled here.
    "This is the one race in the chase I'm worried about the most.
   "But this is the best scenario we can have going into it."
    One thing Stewart does have going for him right now – most of his title challengers have gotten off to a woeful start in the chase.
    And teammate Ryan Newman – who may well be the wild card in this chase – is still merrily rolling right along too.




Dover, Del.

Hey Mike,

I always have a totally hilarious time reading your article. You never fail to deliver my friend. I enjoy your summation on the drivers. You make me laugh and I so look forward to the next article. Now tell me, who is your pick for the Cup? Mine is Jeff Gordon of course. Keep writing Mike. Love your style and how you indirectly put the information out there that really keep us the readers more informed. Thank you for writing Mike.

Kevin Harvick was my title

Kevin Harvick was my title pick pre-season....and he could still do it.
Matt Kenseth was my title pick about six weeks ago, because he was about the only driver keeping in his cool and running fast iron.
Carl Edwards is my pick for the guy with the best shot of beating Jimmie Johnson.
But Jimmie Johnson is looking like my pick right now to win the title, because he's still unflappable.
Jeff Gordon might have a decent shot, but there just appears to be something missing right there, not sure what. Maybe cc Alan Gustafson is too much the gambler?

I don't remember

To answer the question in the caption: No. I do not remember Matt's win or controversial burnout. Can you refresh my aging, fading memory?
+ Leonard.

Sure: Matt won in May, and

then in victory burnout, he put the car nose-first into the outside wall and lit the tires. seeemed innocent enough, and not that unusual, but some rivals complained that he might have been trying to 'mess up' some of the front end suspension to hide some trick up there. never did figure out if there was anything going on or not.....

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