HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Tony Stewart moved slowly through the garage, still hobbled a bit by a lingering limp in his surgically repaired right leg.
He’s sluggish on foot, in his car, and stumbling through what will undoubtedly go down as the worst year of his storied career. His 15-year winning streak will likely end in Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Stewart missed three races after his sprint car struck and killed a young racer in an August accident in New York, and his grief over the incident stayed with him for several months. Add in his struggles with NASCAR’s current rules package, the persistent pain in his leg, and Stewart needs the season to end so he can hit the reset button.
“All streaks come to an end at some point,” Stewart quietly said during an interview with The Associated Press.
His streak of winning at least one Cup race a season began with a victory as a rookie Sept. 11, 1999, at Richmond International Raceway. It is tied for fourth-best in NASCAR history. Richard Petty holds the record with 18 straight years.
Stewart takes solace in his July victory in his return to sprint car racing after the 2013 accident that broke his leg so severely he needed three surgeries to repair the damage.
A win is a win, after all, and these days Stewart will take them whenever he can.
“The streak is important to me, and this year, I still won a sprint car race when I came back,” he said. “So I’ve had 36 straight years of at least winning a race. I was proud to have 15 years in a row that I won a race in the Cup Series. I’ll be sad if it stops and it ends, but that’s part of it.”
The three-time NASCAR champion’s performance was below average even before the Aug. 9 accident that killed Kevin Ward Jr. during a dirt track race. Stewart spent three weeks in seclusion, and when he returned, broken and emotionally fragile, he was a shell of his former self.
It wasn’t until a grand jury in late September cleared Stewart of any wrongdoing in Ward’s death that Stewart began to turn a corner. But as each day got a little easier for him personally, he still couldn’t put together a complete weekend on the track.
Stewart doesn’t run in the top 10 right now; a finish above 20th could be considered a good day. His fourth-place showing last month at Martinsville, where he was grinning ear-to-ear after the race, was his first in the top five since March.
He’s facing long odds again to win his 49th career Cup race Sunday after qualifying 28th.
Stewart can’t get his arms around NASCAR’s current rules package. He doesn’t have a feel for Goodyear’s tires, and he simply cannot execute a decent restart this year. It’s those issues, not his leg or his broken heart, that have made this a terrible season.
“This high downforce package, it does not suit my style at all,” he said, adding, “We just haven’t found what I am looking for.”
But as he’s struggled, teammate Kevin Harvick has thrived, and Harvick will race for his first Cup championship on Sunday. Should Harvick win the title, it would be Stewart’s second as a car owner. His 2011 championship as a driver/owner was his first.
Harvick has been so successful, so far above the others at Stewart-Haas Racing, that Stewart tried to drive his cars.
“It just does not work for me,” he said. “It’s been frustrating for everyone in our group.”
No one more so than crew chief Chad Johnston, who in his first year with Stewart is desperately trying to keep the winning streak intact. Many of Stewart’s longtime fans think Johnston is to blame for Stewart’s struggles because he’s not giving him a car he can drive.
Stewart said Johnston is doing just fine and likened their chemistry to the relationship he had with Greg Zipadelli, his crew chief for 10 years and two championships.
“I really like working with Chad, and it’s been frustrating for him, too,” Stewart said. “If there’s any fans who don’t think he is mad and frustrated, they are fooling themselves. He wants it so bad, but we’ve tried so many different things, I honestly feel it’s the package that’s the hang-up.
“I don’t feel like I need a different crew chief next year. I am very comfortable with who I have.”
So Stewart looks optimistically ahead to next season, when a new rules package with less downforce could be the fix he needs. He’s not done racing, he insisted, and has goals: Stewart is still seeking a Daytona 500 victory, and he wants to win at Darlington and Kentucky to be able to say he’s won at every track on the schedule.
“To win at those two places would be pretty cool,” he said. “And I am not done winning championships, either.”
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