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Distractions abound as Smoke looks to regain his stride

The halfway point of NASCAR's regular season shows big names sitting outside the top-12 Chase cutoff. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya and Joey Logano are among those drivers needing to pick up their performance in the second half.

But hidden among them is the most surprising name of all: two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart.

One year ago, Stewart came to Pocono leading the points and knocking on the door of his first points-paying win as driver/owner. Taking control in the race's final 100 miles, he did it during one of the most impressive drives of last season, charging from shotgun on the field after wrecking his primary car in Saturday practice. It was the peak of a year that saw him lead the points straight through September before fading to sixth in the Chase, silencing critics who thought the man nicknamed Smoke was biting off more than his temperamental personality could handle.

"It's hard to get it all together," he said then. "But once you get it together and you've got a group that's as hungry as this group is, they feed off of each other. It makes it to where all I have to do is walk in there and pat those guys on the back, because they are all a lot smarter people than I am."

That was Stewart-Haas' theme of 2009, its new owner enjoying a cushy job in management with a simple philosophy: don't mess with a good thing. But as the Cup Series fast forwards into this summer, just patting 'em on the back doesn't work anymore in what's been a shocking sophomore slump. Thirteen races in, its owner sits a career-low 16th in points, armed with just one top-5 finish to go with six of 21st or worse. What's scary is that you can't blame those runs on mechanical failures, wrecks, or pit road problems; the man who thrives on speed has been driving Chevys that are just plain slow.

"We're confused," said Stewart when asked about the dropoff. "There are no guarantees in racing. Technology changes. Things change. We're missing on something right now, but we'll find it."

It's clear the new spoiler has thrown Stewart for a loop, a problem he shares with others running Hendrick chassis. Teammate Ryan Newman won at Phoenix in April, using pit strategy and a green-white-checkered restart to take control. But the two Stewart-Haas and four Hendrick cars have pitched a shutout since, combining for just five top-5 finishes over the last half-dozen races. Stewart himself has been awful during that stretch, wrecking with a quality car at Texas before limping through the month of May with just one top-10.

Throughout the funk, everyone insists personalities aren't the problem. Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb developed a close relationship early on, with Grubb capable of handling his boss' A.J. Foyt-like mood swings when things don't go their way.

"Darian and I are side-by-side on it, and our attitude with each other is great, so that's a big positive in trying to get it all sorted out," he said. "We're not building barriers between ourselves. We're not even talking about it because we're so close. He feels bad for me after the race. I feel bad for him and the guys after the race."

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They call it sadness, but it's filtered over into frustration at times. Stewart has been his cantankerous self with the media, something I've always taken with a grain of salt; when you ask a stupid question, he doesn't let you get away with it the same way he won't give up a position on the racetrack. Still, almost every press conference has had that edgy feeling attached this year, a flashback to the old days when Stewart's immaturity caused him to hit a photographer, costing him thousands in fines and nearly a Cup title in 2002.

On-track incidents haven't helped things, either. Sunday found him hitting Greg Biffle's right-rear tire carrier Kevin McDowell during a green-flag pit stop, sending the crewman to the hospital and leaving Stewart distraught afterwards. Observers caught him having a heated post-race "discussion" with Biffle's crew in which he questioned why the damaged car, several laps down, would put itself in harm's way by pitting under green the same time as everyone else.

It's the latest in a whirlwind of mounting distractions. Stewart's baby, the Prelude to the Dream, happens at Eldora next week, attracting the best racers from all over the country to run a charity dirt track show. But you wonder whether working overtime for a race that has nothing to do with NASCAR distracts him at the worst possible time. Primary sponsor Old Spice also needs to be replaced for 2011, and he's constantly dogged with expansion questions after Hendrick signed Kasey Kahne with no place to put him next season. Add in a dose of internal tragedy -- competition director Bobby Hutchens lost his wife to cancer in December -- and all the ingredients are there to keep Stewart in a precarious points position through the summer months.

"I don't feel that way, yet," he said when asked to compare this season to '06, his worst and the only time he's missed the Chase. "If there were three races to go, then I might be a little more nervous about it, but I think we've got a lot of time. It doesn't mean that you take it for granted because you've got that time, but I'm not sure the panic button's been hit yet."

Tranquility comes in part through a history of slow starts; Stewart the driver has seen 33 of his 37 wins occur after June 1st. The key is none of those seasons occurred with Stewart the owner armed with the task of motivating his people. His role model for years has been A.J. Foyt, a man of similar temperament that's arguably the greatest open-wheel driver in history. But once he transitioned from driver to owner, Foyt's legendary impulsiveness caused him to make the wrong moves, leaving his team a bit player on the IndyCar circuit for most of the last two decades.

Now, Stewart is faced with his first real test. The true sign of a great manager is how he reacts in the face of adversity. Can the man they call Smoke put out the fire before it's too late?

- You'll likely see a lot of ink wasted over the next few days with people encouraging that the Pocono races be shortened. While a drop to 400 miles would help, the biggest problem remains mandated gear ratios that have taken the advantage of shifting away. The best part of the track used to be seeing the different strategies of drivers as they passed people going from third to fourth gear; without it, it's difficult to pass and near-impossible for fans to stay awake. Here's to hoping NASCAR brings some innovation back and changes those rules.

- Both 54-year-old Ted Musgrave and 61-year-old Geoffrey Bodine will look to make their Cup returns this weekend. Longtime Cup veterans popular with the hardcore racing crowd, it'll be nice to see them back on track. But when you're reaching that far down into the talent pool, there's no better example of how bad NASCAR's Driver Development situation has become. What, Jimmy Spencer and Greg Sacks weren't available? Not exactly the way to solve a continuing problem attracting the 18-to-34 crowd...

- One month after leaving Whitney Motorsports because of its decision to start-and-park some races, rookie Terry Cook is back in the Cup Series this weekend driving for Phoenix Racing. His mission? To start-and-park. Sometimes, you just have to scratch your head...