Stewart's performance heats up, two-way battle brewing for Loudon
Tony Stewart has kept a surprisingly low-profile this Sprint Cup season
Despite a slow season, Mark Martin could rebound with a strong finish at Loudon
There is a big chance that Stewart and Kurt Busch will be battling in the final laps
He has been remarkably quiet this season, both on and off the track. Tony Stewart hasn't won a race and has led only 108 total laps this year, which is almost as surprising as him maintaining a low profile ever since the season-opening Daytona 500.
While 2010 is quickly shaping up as the "Year of the Feuding Teammates" -- see Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch; Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon; and Kasey Kahne and A.J. Allmendinger -- Stewart has gotten along famously with teammate Ryan Newman. Stewart hasn't had any high-profile collisions with other drivers, hasn't had any public falling outs in the garage, and, for the most part, he's said all the right things when the microphones are on and the cameras are rolling. Yes, so far this has been an utterly benign season for the man once known in the garage, only half-jokingly, as Tempestuous Tony.
But Stewart's performance, as has been the case in the recent past, is starting to heat up with the rising temperatures. On May 8, Stewart slid to 18th in the standings after he finished 23rd in the Southern 500 at Darlington. His season was on the brink. But since then, Stewart has finished outside the top 10 once in six races. He's risen to 10th in the standings and has a 103-point lead over the 13th place driver (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) for the 12th and final spot to advance to the Chase.
It says here his ascent continues on Sunday in Loudon, where I think Stewart will reach Victory Lane for the first time in 2010. He has a stellar history at the 1.058-mile flat oval. He led the most laps in this race last year and likely would have won if the race hadn't been cut short due to rain (he wound up 14th). He has two career wins in Loudon and has finished in the top-5 in 11 of his 22 career starts at the track.
Why is Stewart so good here? New Hampshire is a flat, slick track, which is precisely the kind of place Stewart loves. He grew up racing on dirt tracks throughout the Midwest, and now Stewart usually flourishes when tracks are sun-baked, hot and slippery because it requires him to rely on the same skills he used when he was sliding on the dirt. It's no surprise that Stewart has accumulated more wins in his Cup career in the months of June, July and August than any other of the five months of the season.
I expect Stewart to dominate on Sunday -- and, in the process, he'll finally become a newsmaker in 2010.
Here are five other drivers I'll be watching when the green flag falls:
1. Mark Martin
What's wrong with Mark Martin? That's a question you hear a lot in the garage these days. A year after finishing second in the points and winning five races, which was the most checkered flags he'd taken in over a decade, the 51-year-old Martin is currently 11th in the standings and hasn't sniffed Victory Lane.
Is it possible that Martin's skills -- namely, his hand-eye-foot coordination -- are starting to erode? Certainly. But I expect Martin to be fast in Loudon, where he won last fall.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For the first time this season, Earnhardt has generated some momentum. He's had back-to-back top 11 finishes -- a first for Little E in 2010 -- but now heads to a track that he hasn't exactly torn up. In 21 career starts at New Hampshire, Earnhardt's average finish is 17.8.
He'll need to be better than that on Sunday. He's currently 13th in the standings and closing fast on the 12th place driver, Carl Edwards. Earnhardt will be driving a new, specially built car for this race, which likely means he'll either boom or bust on Sunday.
3. Carl Edwards
Everyone in the garage keeps waiting for Edwards to emerge from the semi-funk he's been stuck in for the better part of a year. He has only one top-5 run this season and hasn't finished inside the top 10 since mid-May. Edwards' main problem -- a poor-handling car -- is the same affliction that all of the Roush-Fenway drivers are experiencing. There are no easy cures for this, especially in the middle of a season.
With Earnhardt charging fast in the standings, Edwards needs a strong run at Loudon, a track where he hasn't finished higher than 17th in his last two starts. If Edwards can pull out a top-15 run, it would be a moral victory.
4. Joey Logano
Logano's second season on the Cup circuit began with so much promise. After finishing 20th at Daytona, he came in fifth at Fontana and sixth at Las Vegas. He seemed on his way. But since then he's had only one top-6 finish -- at Martinsville in late March, when he came in second -- and he's now 17th in the standings. There are only 10 races left in the regular season, so if Logano is going to make a move in the standings, it needs to start on Sunday.
Logano won this race last season when his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, made the right calls in the pits and had Logano in the lead when the race was red-flagged because of rain. Logano didn't have the fastest car that day, but the record book still reflects that at 19 years, one month and four days old, he became the youngest driver to win a Sprint Cup race.
Can Logano and Zipadelli create some more magic on Sunday? If Logano can simply pilot his No. 20 Chevy to a top -10 finish, they'll be satisfied.
5. Kurt Busch
If you're looking for a driver outside of the Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports superpowers who has a credible chance to win the championship this season, cast your eyes on 2004 champion Kurt Busch. Currently sixth in the standings, Busch has, at times, dominated this season. In March he led a race-high 129 laps in his win at Atlanta and the following week at Bristol he led a race-high 278 laps, finishing third. Last month he blew away the field at Charlotte when he led a race-high 252 laps to win the Coke 600. All of this, I think, bodes well for his title hopes, because he's already shown that -- on any given night -- he can absolutely destroy the field.
I expect Busch to be very, very good on Sunday. He's won at Loudon three times since 2004 and hasn't finished lower than sixth in his last four starts on the track. Don't be surprised if this race comes down to a two-way battle between Busch and Stewart.
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