A restful, entertaining offseason left Tony Stewart beaming with optimism for the season ahead.
But that was back in January, during the annual preseason media tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
This is now.
Through 18 races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Stewart has one top-10 finish, a sixth at Bristol, Tenn. He is 28th in the series standings, which may not sound like much, but at one point he was 36th.
The debut of a new aerodynamic rules package at Kentucky Speedway last weekend didn’t offer much change in the prospects for Stewart and his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team, either.
Stewart, who took questions for nearly 30 minutes Tuesday from NASCAR media on a teleconference call, admitted his optimism faded after the season’s first handful of races.
“It did. I wish I could say ‘No, it didn’t,’ But it did,” Stewart said. “The whole year has been frustrating. It just seems everywhere we go we just seem to fight the same battle.
“That’s what’s been frustrating for the whole No. 14 car. We’re trying a ton of things, and we can’t seem to find anything that really moves the needle, or something that makes significant change.
“It just seems the further we go into the year, the more frustrating it gets.”
Stewart entered the 2015 season after one of the most difficult years of his career.
At a dirt track in upstate New York early last August, a sprint car driven by Stewart struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was walking on the track while the race was under caution. Stewart elected to sit out the next three Sprint Cup races.
He returned Aug. 31 at Atlanta. On Sept. 24, a grand jury declined to indict him in the incident.
In the weeks afterward, Stewart and his No. 14 Chevrolet team slowly began to regain some semblance of consistent performance on the track. That built his optimism entering the new season.
Even with a litany of discouraging performances this season, Stewart has hope. He is back in the top 30 of driver points, so a win would still give him a spot in the championship Chase.
“One race could change our whole season,” he said.
“I’m not talking about get a win on pit strategy or something like that, it’s not strictly about a win,” Stewart said. “If we get our car working and we win a race because we got our car working well, it definitely could turn our season around.
“It could change everything. That’s a reason not to give up. That’s a reason to keep fighting every week and show up at the track with the same attitude you did the week before.
“That’s to go out there and win the race and get the year going.”