FOUR RACES into the Sprint Cup season and Tony Stewart's best finish is 30th.
Are we talking about Tony "Smoke" Stewart, a three-time Cup series champion, one of the most skilled race-car drivers in the world finishing races back in the pack with also-rans? Regrettably, we are.
Meanwhile, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick is winning races (two) and extending his remarkable streak of top-two finishes to seven in a row over two seasons. (The last driver with seven consecutive top-two finishes was Richard Petty, in 1975.)
And making it worse for Stewart, Kurt Busch, another SHR racer, returned to the track last Sunday following his suspension, ran second for a while and finished fifth.
A few theories address Stewart's disappointing start:
The demands of his ownership role at SHR and his other racing interests are taking their toll on Stewart.
He is affected more than he reveals by the racing accident last year that killed Kevin Ward Jr. in upstate New York.
He is still adjusting to the new Cup cars.
Gene Haas, Stewart's SHR partner, buys the adjusting theory.
"Tony is a champion. He's used to driving 800-horsepower alcohol Sprint cars in mud, snail snot and whatever else is out there," Haas said after Harvick's victory last Sunday at Phoenix. "He has a tremendous amount of talent to adapting to things quickly. I think it's just a little bit of time it will take him to adapt to this reduction of horsepower, which is probably something he doesn't like.
"Great drivers want as much horsepower as you can get. That's part of the thrill, is to be able to take these machines with 900 horsepower and get them to slide around these turns at speed.
"When you take that away, I guess the hope is that we have better racing. I think the drivers at the top end of this sport probably think that that makes it a different kind of car to drive, it doesn't take nearly as much pedal skills.
"I think Tony will be back. He's a very adaptable driver. He didn't get to this level by chance. It just takes a little bit of time."
Maybe Stewart will start finding his true form in the No. 14 Chevrolet in Sunday's race at Fontana, Calif. He has won twice there (2010, 2012) and has five other top-five finishes in 24 starts. Stewart likes the 2-mile oval because a driver has more influence on the race than at other tracks.
"It's nice knowing that as a driver you can help yourself out and you're not relying so much on the car," he said. "Regardless of what everyone else is doing, you can find a way to help yourself out. It makes you feel good knowing that because the place is so wide, you can move around.
"If a guy gets going and gets his car balanced, then he'll tend to run away. That's just the characteristic of that kind of track. It's fast, it's flat and momentum is so important there that if a guy is off just a little, he's off a lot."
A tip of the restrictor plate to Kurt Busch for his impressive return at Phoenix. After dealing with domestic-violence charges and sitting out the first three races under NASCAR suspension, Busch slid back into the No. 41 Chevrolet as smoothly as a child gliding down a water slide.
"It was great having Kurt back," Gene Haas said. "There's a light at the end of the tunnel, because now we know what to expect. In previous months it was just nothing but question marks. We were as much in suspense as anybody.
"So here we are a week later after we've been reinstated by NASCAR. We appreciate what NASCAR did: I think they did the right thing. I was a little bit stunned, I think, by the fact that Kurt was pulled out several days before Daytona, which just seemed so incredulous to me. Two days before the Daytona 500, to do that to a driver, just didn't seem right.
"But the way things unfolded, it worked out. We didn't really lose too much time. Kurt now is back in the car. I think he's razor-focused. He appreciates that driving at this level is a privilege.
"I think Kurt has a much more focused attitude. He's really dedicated himself to winning a championship. So hopefully in the long run, when we look back on this, we'll look at it as a bump in the road on the way to winning another championship."
It won't be a surprise if Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, qualifies for this year's Chase. A championship? Probably not this year, but if Busch is as focused as Haas says, a second title would be possible.