Coming into this weekend's Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the word most commonly used by everyone to describe Tony Stewart was "frustrated."
"Yes, he is frustrated," agreed Stewart's team mate Ryan Newman on Friday. "For that matter, I'm ahead of him in points and I'm frustrated, too."
"I am frustrated because I keep having to answer the question," said a frankly surly Stewart in the routine round of pre-race interviews on Friday. "'Are you happy when things aren't going the way you like it to go? Makes you frustrated, doesn't it?' So yes, we're frustrated."
The weekend's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at Loudon was widely described as make-or-break for Stewart-Haas's season and for any hopes either driver might still have of making the Chase. Partly that's because New Hampshire has always been a strong venue for Stewart, who has won on the low-banked one mile "true" oval twice and only missed out in last year's autumn race because of a mis-call on the fuel pit strategy.
As team owner, Stewart recently took action about Stewart-Haas' malaise by shaking up personnel
, axing one of the team's senior stalwarts in director of competition Bobby Hutchens at the start of June. But it hadn't seemed to do anything to improve the situation, with Stewart even starting to talk about not wanting to make the cut for the Chase at all if the team wasn't in a position to win races and be genuinely competitive in the Cup championship play-offs.
"Ultimately, we want to be first or second in either order, so yeah, I'm sure he's frustrated," Newman said. "This is crunch time and this has usually been his time, but it hasn't been this year."
Against that background, Stewart-Haas' front row lock-out in qualifying at Loudon on Friday afternoon raised a few eyebrows and came as rather a surprise, as both Newman and Stewart broke the old track record for the circuit in the process. Of course, claiming first and second place on the starting grid is a long way from genuine race success, but it was a leap in performance that got people wondering.
As the Stewart-Haas cars led the field to the green flag in the gorgeous Sunday afternoon sunshine and pleasant 70 degree Fahrenheit summer temperatures, there was still a very long way (301 laps to be precise) between a fleeting qualifying success and lasting race triumph. And history was not on Stewart-Haas' side, as it had been over five years since the last time the top two cars in qualifying had taken the chequered flag in the race in the same order (Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch at Pocono in June 2006, since you're wondering.)
Kurt Busch made an early attempt to break up the Stewart-Haas front row, but Tony Stewart saw him off and then took the lead from Newman to lead from there until the first caution of the race on lap 29 for debris that came out just as Stewart was starting to put straggling backmarkers like Joe Nemechek and Michael McDowell a lap down.