Tony Stewart has lost plenty this season: engines, races, his status as the most fearsome driver in Winston Cup, to name a few things. The defending Cup champion, however, appears to have made gains in at least one area: his sense of humor. Two weeks ago, after winning his first race of 2003, at Pocono, Stewart was asked to name his worst moment from a season that has been filled with low points. "Can you pick just one thing?" he replied, all smiles. "I think that all of you guys expected me to flip out, the way things have gone."
To his credit the notoriously volatile Stewart hasn't lost it this season (perhaps those team-mandated anger-management courses he took last season have helped), but he has had plenty to be furious about. During a seven-race span from March 23 through May 25 he wrecked two times and blew two engines, finishing 40th or lower in three of those races. After finishing eighth at the Sirius 400 in Michigan on Sunday, Stewart was 12th overall. That's not the biggest slump of the year—Dale Jarrett has fallen from ninth in 2002 to 26th—but Stewart was expected to make a run at defending his title, while the 46-year-old Jarrett has been in decline in recent years.
How to explain Stewart's free fall? He and his crew have made uncharacteristic mistakes (at Dover on June I, for example, he was penalized a lap by NASCAR for being inches outside his pit box on a stop), and too often his car has lacked the horsepower to run with the leaders. "It's not anybody's fault," Stewart says. "It's just circumstances out there. It happens to everybody."
Not this often to a defending Winston Cup champion.