Opinion: It’s time for Tony Stewart to make a change at crew chief

Tony Stewart (right) and crew chief Chad Johnston (left) have been together since the start of 2014.

Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Life couldn’t be much better right now for Tony Stewart, the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.

Life for Tony Stewart, the driver of the No. 14 SHR Chevy, is an altogether different matter.

Mired in easily the worst slump of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, Stewart has just one top-10 finish — and nary a top five — in nine races this season.

All the while, two of the drivers he calls teammates — Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch — have combined to win three races in cars that Stewart co-owns. And, Harvick, who captured five victories and the 2014 Sprint Cup championship in his first season with SHR, has literally picked up right where he left off last year, as he’s been by far the dominant driver of 2015.

Last Sunday’s race at Richmond was one of SHR’s most impressive performances yet, as Busch and Harvick finished 1-2 with the former joining Harvick in cementing a spot in the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Even SHR’s Danica Patrick, who continues to adjust to the rigors of stock-car racing in this her third full Sprint Cup season, has outperformed her boss over the season’s first two months.

She has two top 10s to Stewart’s one, and is 16th in the points, compared to Stewart’s 30th-place standing.

An even greater testament to Stewart’s struggles, however, is the fact that Busch is 12 positions better than Stewart in the standings despite missing the season’s first three races while serving a suspension for alleged domestic violence.

So why is Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion and winner of 48 Sprint Cup races, in such a horrendous funk?

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Some folks might suggest that he has never fully recovered from the broken leg he suffered in a sprint car crash in August 2013.

Others will say Stewart has not yet recovered emotionally from his role in the accident that claimed the life of sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. in August of last year.

But neither hypothesis is correct.

If you take Stewart at his word, any lingering ill-effects from the broken right leg aren’t pronounced enough at this point to reasonably hamper his performance.

As for the Kevin Ward incident, only Stewart knows how much it does or doesn’t still weigh on his mind.

But at least publically, he has managed to go on and not let the tragedy — which rocked the entire racing world — define him.

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So all of this begs the question: Why is Stewart, the team owner, on fire in 2015 while Stewart, the driver, is off to the worst start of his career?

And more importantly, what needs to happen for Stewart and his No. 14 team to perform comparably to the rest of the SHR drivers, and particularly Harvick’s vaunted No. 4 bunch?

Bear in mind, Stewart has access to the same Hendrick engines, and the same bodies and chassis that his teammates do. And even though he will turn 44 years old on May 20, it seems shortsighted to suggest that Stewart has somehow forgotten how to drive or needs to follow in the footsteps of fellow champion Jeff Gordon and make plans to call it quits.

No, Stewart is a world-class driver in every sense of the word, and while his skills may not be as sharp as they were when he was 25 or even 35 years old, it merits reminding that he is not even four years removed from his most recent Sprint Cup championship — which he won, may we not forget, in downright superb fashion.

In 42 races with Johnston, who previously worked as a crew chief at Michael Waltrip Racing, Stewart is winless and has just three top fives and eight top 10s.

While there have been a few occasions this season when Stewart brought trouble on himself, there have been more times when his car simply wasn’t fast enough to run anywhere near the front.

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This is a problem. A big problem. And the responsibility of fixing it ultimately rests with the crew chief.

So, is there any good news for Stewart?

Well, certainly. Unlike the drivers he competes with each week, he’s his own boss.

That means he reserves the right to move people around as he sees fit.

If Stewart, the driver, wants to enjoy success that is remotely in the same ballpark as Stewart, the owner, the owner needs to make a personnel change atop the pit box so the driver can start competing like his old self again.