SONOMA, Calif. The finishes haven’t been spectacular, but they have been consistent.
That’s enough to give Tony Stewart confidence that a victory – and the likely berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup this season that comes with it – may be close at hand.
Stewart’s roller-coaster start to the 2014 season has stabilized over the past four races, a stretch where he’s finished between seventh and 13th each week. Much of this year, he’s varied from running as high as fourth to as low as dead-last (43rd).
“I value the consistency more than I do having a couple top-three finishes and then running 20th the next week,” Stewart said Friday at Sonona Raceway. “I feel a lot better about where we’re going right now and the direction across the board; our cars are getting more consistent with all four teams.
“That’s really what I’m basing how we are as a company right now and I think it translates to each individual team, as well.”
Qualifying for Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 is at 10:30 a.m. Saturday (Fox Sports 1). Stewart was ninth fastest in Friday’s first practice and 28th-fastest in the final practice.
Stewart faced several obstacles entering this season.
A fourth team with driver Kurt Busch was added from scratch at Stewart-Haas Racing, which required additional staffing; Stewart began the year with a new crew chief (Chad Johnston); and he is still undergoing rehabilitation for the broken leg he suffered last summer that kept him out of his car for nearly half the season.
Stewart’s first time back in a Cup car after his injury was practice the day prior to the Sprint Unlimited non-points race in February. He finished 35th, 16th and 33rd in his first three points races of the season before earning a fourth-place finish at Bristol, Tenn., in March.
Since then, Stewart’s performance in the No. 14 Chevrolet has been hit-or-miss until the consistency he’s developed in the past month.
That consistency is good timing when combined with Stewart’s prowess on NASCAR’s road courses.
Between Sonoma and the road-course in Watkins Glen, N.Y., Stewart has made 29 career road-course starts, earning seven wins, 12 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes while leading a total of 307 laps.
The road course races fall right in the middle of Stewart’s annual “summer surge.”
Of his 48 Cup wins, 23 have come in June, July and August (Seven wins in June, nine in July and seven in August).
His team’s recent performance combined with his road course success leave Stewart fairly upbeat about his chances to earn his first win of the season this weekend.
“If we can get a balance, I feel like I can (compete for the win) for sure,” he said. “This is one of the places I love coming to each year. So, if we get it close, I feel like I can get something done here.”
Stewart also knows good days can go sour fast with impatient drivers on road courses.
“A lot can happen at Sonoma. You get a lot of cautions and a lot of guys end up beating and banging on each other,” he said. “I mean, the cars look like they’ve been to a race at Martinsville because it’s a short road course.”
Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.
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