Stewart chases away frustrations at dirt track

By Shawn Mitchell - The Columbus Dispatch



Maybe all that Tony Stewart needs is a dose of dirt.

The three-time Sprint Cup champion and one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers is mired in the worst slump of his career, sitting 28th in the points standings and struggling with new rules that have reigned in horsepower. Stewart, 44, has made 59 starts since his last race win, on June 2, 2013, at Dover International Speedway.

Since then, he has undergone multiple surgeries on his right leg resulting from a sprint-car crash in August 2013 and a life-changing tragedy when he struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint-car race in upstate New York last August.

This was supposed to be the season in which the Indiana resident and former open-wheel wiz reignited his stock-car career. It has been anything but.

Stewart, a winner of 48 races since beginning his Sprint Cup career in 1999, has an average finish of 25th and one top-10 finish this season. His struggles have been magnified by the success of teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, both of whom have won twice and are Nos. 1 and 8 in the season standings. Harvick won five races and the series championship last season.

“We’re just trying to get our program back on track,” a subdued and at times melancholy Stewart said during a conference call this past week. “We’re desperately trying to figure out what it’s going to take to move the needle.”

But a mention of Stewart’s 10-year run as owner of Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio lit a fire. Owning Eldora, a venerable half-mile dirt track near the Indiana border in Darke County, is a dream come true for Stewart, a pre-eminent dirt-racing junkie.

Although Stewart has not returned to dirt-track racing since he struck Ward, he said it perks him up simply pulling onto the property. He will be there next week, reveling in the buildup to and the spectacle of the truck series MudSummer Classic on Wednesday, the only major NASCAR series race held on dirt.

“I can pull in and drive through the campground and see people having a good time and getting to see a good race,” Stewart said. “I’m a race fan, too. If I go there, and the show runs smooth, we see a good race and see people as they’re leaving, if they’re smiling and if they’re talking about what they saw, that makes all that worthwhile.

“You know, I love dirt-track racing. I always have, always will. I love Eldora Speedway. That’s what I’m into. That’s what I do on the side, and that’s what my energy goes into.”

Yet Stewart’s stake in Eldora, two other small-time tracks, an entire open-wheel series and his own Sprint Cup team (four-car Stewart-Haas Racing, which also includes Danica Patrick) has drawn criticism.

“Anything that takes your attention away from driving your own car hurts,” NASCAR legend Richard Petty told Autoweek earlier this season, adding that Stewart is distracted by the business side of the sport.

Stewart, traditionally at his best during the summer, would love to prove Petty wrong.

“One race can change our whole season,” Stewart said, referring to the nearly automatic spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship that he would earn with a victory.


By Shawn Mitchell

The Columbus Dispatch