Not blowing Smoke: Tony Stewart, No. 14 team making strides

Tony Stewart is winless in 2014 but has a strong shot to break into Victory Lane this weekend at Daytona.

Tony Stewart isn’t where he wants to be yet, but he’s gaining on it.

The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion had a strong run under the lights Saturday night in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, where he brought the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet home 11th, his seventh consecutive top-20 finish.

And it was particularly impressive given that Stewart had to start from the very back of the field because of a transmission change.

"I would’ve liked to have been a little better than what we were there at the end, but I think we definitely had to fight our way up there through the day," Stewart said after the race. "We never did anything trick to get track position. We pitted every time the pits were open. We didn’t do any less than anybody else did on any stop. All in all, I thought we had a pretty honest day there. Can’t complain about that."

Photos: Night racing in the Bluegrass State

In his first year back after his horrific double-compound fracture of the right leg suffered in a sprint car crash in Iowa last year, Stewart is very close to working himself into the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

After the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Stewart was 22nd in points; now, he’s all the way up to 16th. More importantly, he’s a mere 14 points from holding down the final spot in the Chase field.

A race victory would all but guarantee Stewart a Chase slot, although he could make it in on points as well.

But heading into Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Stewart will be pretty much focused on one thing only: Winning. And history says he’s got a pretty good chance of doing just that.

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After all, Stewart is a four-time Coke Zero 400 winner, taking home the July 4 weekend trophy from Daytona in 2005, ’06, ’09 and ’12. And according to NASCAR’s Loop Data statistics, Stewart has led 548 laps in the past 19 points races at Daytona, with Kyle Busch second at 329 led.

If you want a little more evidence that Stewart is due for a victory, consider the following: Of Stewart’s 48 career Sprint Cup race victories, nine of them have come in the month of July. All of which could make for a big weekend at Daytona.

And more than any of his peers, Stewart is someone who can go on a tear at a moment’s notice, as witnessed by his extraordinary championship run three years ago. Stewart went winless through the entire 26-race Sprint Cup schedule in 2011, posting just three top-five finishes. After barely making the Chase that year, Stewart went on to win five of the 10 Chase races and his third title, this one in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.

So while Stewart is still searching for a little more speed in his SHR Chevy, he just might find it this weekend at Daytona.