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Tony Stewart struggling to end worst slump of career

Tony Stewart walks to his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race Friday, June 26, 2015, in Sonoma, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Tony Stewart spent a rare week off traveling across Ohio as the hands-on owner of a sprint car series.

He spent time with the officials in charge of the All Star Circuit of Champions, the promoters and made sure the product was top-notch. Stewart returned to his day job refreshed and ready to get back to work with his NASCAR team.

It took just one practice session at Sonoma Raceway for Stewart’s moment of Zen to end with a resounding thud. The balance was off in the No. 14 Chevrolet — again — and his laps lagged far behind the leaders.

The three-time NASCAR champion is stuck in the worst season of his career, with no idea how to snap the slump. He’ll start seventh in Sunday’s race on the Sonoma road course.

“If I knew what to do, I would do it,” he told The Associated Press. “I don’t even know what to do to fix the problem. We don’t know what the problem is.”

Stewart knows the issue isn’t SHR’s cars. Reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick is the current points leader and he and Kurt Busch have each won two races. Danica Patrick has shown speed and is higher in the standings than Stewart, her boss and co-owner of the race team.

Stewart is 26th in the points, with just one top-10 finish through 15 races. He believes his issues begin with NASCAR’s current rules package, but also takes responsibility for his inability to adapt to the lower horsepower and higher downforce combination.

“I would say it’s me and the package — for some reason it just doesn’t suit what I am doing,” he said. “All the cars I grew up driving had a much higher power-to-weight ratio than what we have right now. I’ve never really been good with low-horsepower cars.

“It’s not how I’m used to making a living.”

The ongoing cycle of trying to figure out how to get comfortable in the car, to make a plan with crew chief Chad Johnston that will give him the feel he needs, has been maddening for Stewart.

Asked by AP about his current level of confidence, Stewart admitted he’s suffering.

“What’s that? I should google that and see if I can find the meaning of that word,” he said. “I don’t have any confidence.”

Stewart has not, however, lost confidence in Johnston, the crew chief who stepped into the job at the start of the 2014 season. He inherited a driver who had been sidelined almost six months with a broken leg suffered in a 2013 sprint car crash.

Stewart trudged through last season, a flash here and there, but his leg bugged him and his feel for the cars was suffering. It wasn’t shaping up to be a good season even before the August sprint car accident in which Stewart struck and killed another driver.

Stewart owns his issues and his problems, and defends the job Johnston has done.

“Every week we come here, we are optimistic we are going to have a good week. There’s not a week that I show up and don’t think I can win,” he said. “Chad shows up every week trying something different. I feel like I’m holding him back. I’m holding this whole team back.”

Stewart has at least a small voice in moving NASCAR closer to a rules package that suits his style.

He was voted by his peers onto the newly formed driver council that has met with NASCAR at least once to discuss ways to improve the on-track product. Stewart is clearly in the corner of drivers pushing for less downforce, and he’s adamant that NASCAR needs to quickly figure out how to address the aerodynamic issue that is making passing so difficult.

“Make the aero not as important and make the mechanical grip more important,” he said. “Mechanical grip doesn’t know where the air is, doesn’t know if there’s a car in front of you or behind you or wherever. That’s my two cents and it comes from 37 years of driving 25 different types of race cars — but that’s apparently not enough information for them to consider that valid.”

His frustration with the rules package is evident, but he’s pleased that NASCAR is open to listening for the first time in his career.

“For the first time in 17 years that I’ve been in this series, we actually have a group from NASCAR that says ‘What do you guys think?'” Stewart said. “I think it’s one of the coolest times, even though it’s kind of a crisis situation, it’s cool to see NASCAR and the teams working together.”

Whether it’s happening fast enough to help Stewart remains to be seen. He dismissed the idea that a good finish Sunday on the road course at Sonoma or next week at Daytona will be the spark to save his season — that can only be done with strong finishes on 1.5-mile tracks, which comprise the bulk of the NASCAR schedule.

And he didn’t answer when asked how long he can continue to race in NASCAR while finding so little joy in the race-to-race results.

The only thing he’s certain of right now is what it will take to turn this season around.

“It’s going to take more than one race,” he said. “We could win a race anywhere right now, and I wouldn’t say ‘We’ve got it fixed, we found it.’ Consistency is what I’m looking for more than that one win.

“I’d honestly rather have five top-fives than just one win right now.”

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